As a gay man who came of age during the AIDS crisis, Paul Lisicky’s gorgeous and haunted new memoir, “Later: My Life at the Edge of the World,” is a book I wish I could take back to my younger self to prove to him that being gay isn’t something to run from. “Later” recounts Lisicky’s time as a fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Center and then as a resident of Provincetown, which he simply calls “Town” in the book, from 1991 to 1994 during the height of the AIDS crisis.
Lisicky gives us statistics to provide context for the crisis: “In 1991, 10,000,000 people live with HIV, more than 1,000,000 in the United States. In that year alone 20,454 die in the U.S. Officially, there are ninety-two people living with full-blown AIDS in Town, which doesn’t include HIV-positive people without symptoms.” The way he moves from worldwide numbers to U.S. numbers to Town numbers is an excellent example of how he moves from the global picture to the local one, which allows us to see how the crisis impacts daily life. As Lisicky writes, “I can’t feel statistics.”
He makes us feel those statistics by showing gay life as more than distraught about HIV/AIDS. There are the questions about dating, “Is a boyfriend someone to love or someone to be loved by?” Lisicky navigates us through the assertion of his independence from his family, “Emotionally, it’s a full-time job to draw a border between myself and my family…” He makes friends, he writes, he has sex, he figures out ways to prolong his stay in Town after his initial fellowship ends and negotiates the Town’s housing situation. It’s powerful because it is still uncommon to see the full lives of gay people depicted. Too often we’re presented as tragic figures, or our happiness is fetishized. “Later” shows us gay people in love, gay people experiencing joy, worry, sadness, tenderness and failure. There are gay people laughing, crying, and afraid.
The AIDS crisis is not downplayed. It is precisely because of how the book depicts the multiple facets of life in the Town that makes it all the more devastating. As he says near the start of the book, “I don’t understand the conventional explanation of ghosts, but I do understand boxes of ashes stashed beneath tables, the ugly shirts of the young dead still hanging in closets, the young dead crying…”. Lisicky allows for beauty in the way he speaks of the dead, “a man…turns on a cheap little lamp, not suspecting the dead live in that lamp. The dead light up the room for an hour…”. Ghosts linger over “Later.” They are at times expressions of the anxiety around sex and the specter of HIV/AIDS. However, in Lisicky’s vulnerable and necessary voice, they are also reminders to live.
Paul Lisicky reads from “Later” in a joint reading with author Garth Greenwell at Women and Children First on June 25 at 7pm.
“Later: My Life at the Edge of the World”
By Paul Lisicky
Graywolf Press, 240 pages
Bruce Owens Grimm writes haunted queer essays and memoir. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Kenyon Review Online, Ninth Letter, Entropy, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Older Queer Voices, and elsewhere. He is co-editing Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer & Trans Bodies & Lives to be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. More can be found at www.bruceowensgrimm.com.