Later: My Life at the Edge of the World Paul Lisicky Graywolf March 2020 ISBN: 978-1-64445-016-1 240 pages $16.00 Order now!
When a young writer, Paul Lisicky, gets to Provincetown in the early 1990s, he finds a setting that quickly arouses his senses. There are talented artists, many of whom become new friends; there are sexual and romantic interests, as well as a new landscape to explore.
Lisicky’s new memoir, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World (Graywolf, 2020), isn’t just about an artist’s journey or a place that inspired an artist, but it pays deep attention, too, to the communal story of “Town.” In fact, it pays attention to the communal story of “Town” even if it would be much easier and self-preserving for Lisicky to look away with the AIDS crisis going on, to not think about death, to ignore one of the somber services going on as one walks near the Unitarian Church. This tension of a story that begs to be told, but only if told exceptionally well, propels this work.
Readers interested in the writing of place will be especially drawn to Later. There’s obvious risk-taking. When a writer writes the communal story, there’s often an agonizing over doing it justice and about responsibility, and it’s very clear that Lisicky gives this story great care. The attention to detail, the intimacy, show great labor and also a sense of love.
“Town” is Provincetown, Massachusetts. Only in the very technical sense, many of us have been there. It’s not really true, of course. Many of us went at different times or maybe experienced it only as tourists. This book is definitely not a tour of Provincetown. If you want to find the beauty and truth of a place, tours aren’t worth a shit anyway.
The idea of having another name you call a place in a memoir like this is perfect. It has a greater effect than it seems like it could. I wish I knew this could just be done before, that all you had to do was to do it. I have a few places in my life like this, though not quite in the same way. Nashville is the largest one. I lived in Nashville for some formative years of my life and experienced the place deeply based on the time of my life when I was there and unique jobs I held at the time that gave me unusual vantage points, and constantly I’ve cringed for years when people whose only “experience” of the same place was a single country music festival or bachelorette weekend and they say, oh, it’s so great. Nothing against tourism, but it doesn’t always fit in every conversation. I think I get what Lisicky means by trying to put distance between that and the complex realities, the nuances. It’s about not letting the one sentence, whatever the intention, of “Oh, Place X is great” summarize and drown out what you have a degree of ownership of, or least a genuine relationship with.
Given the context of this book and the real pain, sense of danger, and loss many were feeling in “Town”, it must also be a much deeper layer of misunderstanding that we risk by not really listening to the storyteller. Here is a gay writer, coming to “Town” for a prestigious writing fellowship, seeing members of his community, the gay community, go through this moment in a time where there is this real danger and a great deal of unknown. Could Lisicky be in danger, too?
This place, like any place and people, can be described, sure, but it can’t be described in a meaningful way without embracing its varied nuances, without embracing all the intimacies that exist there, whether everyone can see them and fully understand them or not.
Lisicky depicts himself in a time where he is clearly coming into his own—sexually, physically, and intellectually. But, like I’ve said, the narrator isn’t a tour guide. The narrator would probably say the world has enough tour guides already.
And maybe there’s something actually telling about those cover dogs on Lisicky’s two most recent books. While in his last book, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship (also tremendous), the dog on the book’s cover is depicted as an obscured shadow, in this book the reader gazes right into the eyes of the pit bull on the cover. The reader has to see and acknowledge the storyteller and meet him on his terms, and it’s absolutely worth it. Lisicky’s “Town” hums with life and is honest.
The book’s release coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic makes for an odd but interesting combo. People will have to answer for themselves how much that affects their read, but at the very least Lisicky was in a new place with a lot of unknown swirling around him and his contemporaries, and, in a way, we have all been, if not in a new place exactly, certainly experiencing our same place in a new way.
Gregory Sullivan is the book review editor of Change Seven. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, VICE Sports, The Toronto Star, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, and other places. He grew up in Georgia, worked as a newspaper journalist in Georgia and Tennessee, and completed an MFA in fiction from Rutgers University. Now, he lives and writes in North Carolina.