“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says at the empty tomb. He said it before, at the Transfiguration; and before that, after walking on water; and before that, upon meeting the first disciples. We’re often afraid, especially when we’re told not to be. Yet as the suffering associated with the coronavirus pandemic grows, it’s hard not to feel that this time is more fearful than most.
How bracing, then, to read Paul Lisicky’s memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World. Lisicky considers the damage one suffers by living with fear as well as the grace displayed by those who endure it. The book’s subtitle refers geographically to Provincetown, the seaside community “situated on the final joint of the longest finger” of Cape Cod where Lisicky lived in the early 1990s as a Writing Fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center. The subtitle refers existentially to the experience of being a young gay man at the height of the AIDS pandemic. “By the mid-1990s,” Lisicky writes, “it will be said that 385 people died of AIDS in Town”—his name for the proudly artsy, proudly queer community of Provincetown. “Ten percent of the population. Sometimes I say it back to myself aloud, in hopes that it will sear me: 10 percent. And yet I can’t feel statistics.”
What did it feel like to live in a time and place so haunted by death? Lisicky became a close reader of bodily changes and what they portended. He picked up the newspaper and read the obituaries first. He came to see everyone, his lover and himself, as a potential threat: “Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades.… How would your life change? Could you ever disappear into yourself, into your skin ever again?” He felt fury at God’s silence: “Looking at those changes straight on? Imagine trying to look at God, and if you think you can do that, God will find a way to break you.”
Yet living in Town also allowed Lisicky to experience an excitement of mind and body, a tenderness of the soul and spirit, that he had never known before. A gay boy raised Catholic in the South, Lisicky had always lived in fear of himself and others. Now, for the first time, he was openly desired. He felt loved—by boyfriends and strangers, by writers and painters—and he loved in turn. And where there is love, there is freedom. Among other things, Later is a wonderful portrait of a community formed in and through extremis. Lisicky sketches the writer Elizabeth McCracken, also a Writing Fellow and possessed of “a distinctive speaking voice that sounds like it was made for singing,” as well as the poet Mark Doty, then a man caring for his dying partner and, in the future, Lisicky’s lover. We read about the bonds established in bars and at poetry readings, the intimacy afforded by living together in the midst of death and in the expectation of love.
The book’s final sentence, yearning and elegiac, speaks both to Lisicky’s years in Town and to our own moment: “I want to touch you while there’s still time to touch you.”
Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
Graywolf, $16, 240 pp.