A place of great remoteness and refuge, Provincetown — a coastal village at the tip of Cape Cod, Mass. — captivates the eyes and minds of its visitors and residents. In his memoir, “Later: My Life at the Edge of the World,” Paul Lisicky attests to its fascination by opening with not one but six epigraphs about the location from Henry David Thoreau, Mary Heaton Vorse, Denis Johnson, Eileen Myles, Andrea Lawlor and Annie Dillard, who writes: “What happens to people out here on the Lower Cape, a mid-ocean sandspit? From solid citizens they sublimed to limbless metaphysicians.”
A lyrical book of nonfiction both metaphysical and embodied, “Later” concerns itself contemplatively with the souls of humans and their mortal containers. Provincetown — or “Town” as he calls it to “keep it a mystery, take it back from all my old associations” — has long served as a haven for artists and members of the LGBTQ+ community. When Lisicky, in his early 30s, arrives in 1991 at the Fine Arts Work Center for a long-term residency for emerging artists, he is eager to immerse himself in Town’s creative and sexual opportunities.
“If you’re lucky in your life, a place, or two, will be offered to you. … It will be at some distance, and it will never be yours — you’ll always be a visitor or guest,” he writes, adding that “This place will give you things denied you in your place of growing up.”
There at the peninsular edge of New England, Lisicky finds the friends and romantic partners he had long been craving, thinking, “This is what power feels like, but only when power is spread evenly, or when queerness isn’t othered, but is central.” But his utopia, he acknowledges, is hardly without suffering. By the mid-1990s, “it will be said that 385 people died of AIDS in Town. Ten percent of the population.”
Lisicky writes lucidly with sorrow and joy of the complicated tension between transience and community in Provincetown at large and in the specifically queer milieu caught in the grip of the AIDS crisis, evoking the energy of people coming and going by choice and by fate, leaving sometimes for the mainland and sometimes for death.
Touching on youth and illness, inclusion and acceptance, Lisicky possesses an eye for geography and an ear for gallows humor, organizing the story in sections with such titles as “New Boy” and “Butch Butch Butch” and juxtaposing his thoughts with those of Lauren Berlant, Walt Odets and Michel Foucault.
Lisicky’s sinuous sentences and tone of composure attest to the unsentimental but inspiring idea that even “during the hour of a plague people from different backgrounds can be together. Not to dissolve that difference, but to love that difference.”
Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and the forthcoming “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: A Novel of World War I.”
Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
By: Paul Lisicky.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 227 pages, $16.