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Later: by Paul Lisicky

Neither Paul Lisicky nor his publisher could have known that they’d be releasing a book about a terrifying global health crisis during a terrifying global health crisis, but the timing is nevertheless uncanny. Particularly as the book, about the author’s life as a gay man in the homosexual haven of Provincetown, Massachusetts in the midst of the AIDS crisis of the early ‘90s, isn’t even Lisicky’s first memoir. While it is startling to read about such events while we’re enduring so much, Lisicky’s take on life, love and relationships during a crisis provide hope and clarity.

Anyone who has traveled Provincetown, nestled on the tip of Cape Cod, will know that it does indeed feel like the edge of the world. Not just geographically; the town’s role as an epicenter of queer life also makes it feel like somewhere distinctively other. Somewhere magical but almost unreal. So Lisicky’s title Later: My Life at the Edge of the World fits perfectly, as Provincetown is almost as much of a character in the book as Lisicky himself. Later finds the author awarded a fellowship at Provincetown’s famed Fine Arts Work Center, and he arrives there, young and horny and in his early 30s, and proceeds to fuck his way through town. But there’s a menace lurking just out of sight, as AIDS grips Provincetown particularly hard, eventually claiming 10 percent of the town’s gay population.

It’s in considering the shadow of death lurking right outside his door that Lisicky’s always-beautiful writing is the most prescient and urgent. He flirts with the idea of unprotected sex and is tempted at every turn by the beautiful, available men lining Provincetown’s streets. But sex could equal death, and HIV/AIDS was still somewhat mysterious, so fear hovered even with actions we now know to be safe. At the same time, however, friends and lovers were dying all around him. A scan of the paper’s obituary section was like what scrolling through a Facebook feed would be to us today. Lisicky grapples with the trauma of death’s overt presence and also addresses the inability to truly engage with it as it is happening. It just seems too big, too terrifying, too unfair – which is what so many people are facing right now.

Of course, HIV/AIDS was and is different than COVID-19 because of how it was tied to gay male sex right from the beginning, with politicians and the media branding it before science proved otherwise. And Provincetown, seemingly safe from so many of the other horrors that can accompany gay life – violence, bullying, homelessness and worse – had no answer for the virus.

Lisicky is one of the great writers of queer friendship and relationships (add his 2016 memoir The Narrow Door to your reading list) and he is at the top of his game in Later, describing the warring waves of excitement and terror that accompanied each new lover. He sets his scene right from the beginning, and it is so easy to imagine him as a young, sunkissed, handsome and free man landing in what seems to be paradise in the early ‘90s. As with most things worth writing about, this paradise ends up being rather complicated. But though Later bears witness to a devastating time in history, Lisicky resists morbidity in favor of complexity. He reveals how this sudden surge of death all around him has influenced everything he has done since; it has been with him ever since, becoming a part of his body and his mind.

Though it is hard to consider history as we are living it, Paul Lisicky’s Later: My Life at the Edge of the World provides perhaps a glimpse of how to consider unfathomably large tragedy in the context of our own individual lives and loves. How lucky we are to have a writer of his caliber willing to show us the way.

Summary
Though Later bears witness to a devastating time in history, Lisicky resists morbidity in favor of complexity.
90 %
Prescient & complex

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