Over 200,000 Americans, half of them gay men, have died from AIDS or are living with it. David Feinberg’s prizewinning first novel, Eighty-Sixed, came straight from the heart — and the fresh mouth — of a subculture under siege. His hero, B.J. Rosenthal, was a young Jewish gay looking for sex, love, and solace south of 14th Street in the heady years before — and the panicked years after-the discovery of HIV. B.J.’s manic misadventures and sardonic one-liners launched a new genre: epidemic shtick.
In Spontaneous Combustion, five years and many deaths later, B.J. is still wisecracking, and still immune to phony sentiment and cant. This loose-knit group of stories reads like a survivor’s manual: Taking the HIV test, telling your mom, hospital visits, safe sex, strained ties between positives and negatives-all get the black-comic treatment. What do you say to a prospective date who tell you he’s HIV-positive? ”I guess that means I should pencil you in for this weekend instead of next.” The tragedy is mostly between the lines: Feinberg writes to comfort friends in dire need. But the message — that the gay community has met disaster with wit and resourcefulness — deserves the widest possible audience. B+