When ‘Dick Pig’ Was the Highest Compliment Available in Provincetown

Paul Lisicky's acclaimed memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World recreates the vanished world of Provincetown in the early 1990s.

Slim, dark, and bearded, Paul Lisicky looks like a Count in a Russian novel. Like he left his cutaway in a cab. The type who’d order his footmen to shatter the windows because a lady who’s waltzing feels faint. Ramrod-backed. Heel-clicking. May I take your hat, sir?

 Or at least that was my first impression when I met Paul almost 20 years ago, and that’s how he still looks in that half-second when I first see him, before I remember he’s my pal. 

I’m putty in the hands of Old World charm, but it’s never proved disappointing that the real Paul is tender and giggling, boyish and shy—and a son of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I have known him in many moods, but I most associate him with three expressions: One of deep listening, as though words are being spoken, through a dim headset, that he has never heard before; one of deep reflection, as though he’s trying to precisely recall the dinner conversation of last Tuesday; and one of barely suppressed laughter, as though a joke has only just occurred to him that would be ruinous to tell. In other words, to sit with Paul is to watch his brain whir. There is no possible profession for him but writing.

Which shouldn’t imply that Paul isn’t as much a man of experience as he is of rumination. In fact, increasingly, as one of the nation’s surest memoirists, his project seems to be bravely scaling the uncertain heights of modern gay life—the Sir Edmund Hillary of the Bathhouse—and transcribing his findings, forthrightly, into striking prose. With lots of Joni Mitchell lyrics along the way. And he’s never managed the task more ably than in his most recent work, Later: My Life at the Edge of the World

Of Later’s many virtues, surely the most palm-wetting is the frankness of its sexuality. Has there ever been a gay memoir of this rank so willing to plumb the tissue-thin layers of erotic exchange? To nakedly position the supremacy of sex in gay life in such glistening language? Carnal recountings are characteristic of this coming-of-age story, which reveres its subject too much to hedge. Here, for instance, is Paul lauding the “star boys” of porn:

[They] want to be alive as much as it’s possible to be alive, and that’s their politics, their rebellion. Dreamtime, ecstasy, forgetfulness, proof that another life beyond repression is imaginable. They offer their bodies to be seen, taken, put to imaginative use. To serve as proxy. To be the rugged jawline you’re kissing, the dick you’re holding in your hand, whether it’s imaginary or real. They teach us how to be men, how to position our seeing at the center of our lives. 

The book bursts with such intimate lessons in manhood.

Recently, I chatted with Paul about Later and the thrilling new openness available to gay writers. Even over the telephone, you can hear him hunting for the just-right word, like a lyricist in search of a subtle rhyme—particularly when it comes to Provincetown, the gay Mecca that has been written about for decades and which Lisicky finds new ways to recreate in Later

“I started this book in 2015,” says Paul, “and it was wrong for a long time before it was right….Provincetown is such a tricky place. It feels like a body, a character. And as much as it’s a geographical location, it’s also a collection of myths. You know, more than half the people who claim it don’t live there. Just as I don’t, anymore. But I’m always checking in on it, because a part of me began there. It’s where I started my adult life, claimed my self, joined my community. As soon as I arrived, it felt electric.”

Set in Provincetown in the early 1990s, Paul’s memoir recalls his time as a thirty-ish writing fellow at the town’s Fine Arts Work Center, a veritable factory for the country’s great penmen. Of course, it’s the story of a writer winning his authorial voice, but chiefly, it’s the story of a gay man’s postponed adolescence, and the sentimental education he received in a singular moment. In his telling, Provincetown was, at that time, a paradise set against a backdrop of death, the Dorchester during the Blitz, the place of final reckoning in the midst of a murderous plague. And as such, it was, inevitably, a place of (literally) death-defying fucking, of male bodies conjoining to reaffirm their humanity; and a place in which “there [was] no higher term of endearment than dick pig.”

Many handlers of similar material have—understandably—struck an elegiac note, and stuck to it. But without succumbing to nostalgia (“AIDs isn’t the good old days,” Paul firmly states), he manages to infuse his past encounters with the urgency of their moment. Of a midday assignation with a sloe-eyed stranger in a leather jacket, he writes: 

We pull the shirts over our heads and step out of our pants, kicking them away. He isn’t afraid of being expressive, of saying the lusty things from a place deep in his throat, not his usual speaking voice. I’ve never been with anyone like that. He becomes a bit of a rough animal, and it’s a relief to be here, not in the world outside but in the place of dreams, where we transform death.

Not the worst way to survive a plague.

Less than 20 years ago, there was a question of whether or not Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running with Scissors would even be stocked by Barnes & Noble, given the explicitness of its content. Now, Later has been named a book of the year by NPR and Oprah magazine. 

“Isn’t it amazing?” asks Paul. “Gay writers, including those I greatly admire such as Garth Greenwell and Tommy Pico, finally get to talk about our lives in a way that just wasn’t possible before. Not that there aren’t still gatekeepers at the big publishers, people who want to keep our life force from the page, and tuck sex into the whitespace. But increasingly, good writing about gay sexuality can reach a wide audience. And you know, I believe in the possibility of a reader being in sync with me.

“I find sex unfailingly interesting, even when it’s failing. It’s a locus for paying attention, and for asking questions. Like, ‘Am I even enjoying this? Do I want to do this again? Does he? Is this move possible? And how will he react to it?’ It’s communication and it’s language, even when actual language isn’t involved. All of life is present. It’s exhausting!”

By Later’s end, Paul achieves adult footing—a string of successful books, a marriage to the poet Mark Doty, a secure teaching career. But one of the volume’s subversive charms is that it begins with the author’s matriculation into one generation of gay sex, and ends with another. His marriage to Doty over, Paul finds himself “a twenty-two-year old in his fifties,” confounded by a life and freedom he never expected to achieve. Tentatively exploring the new world of Scruff and PrEP, scrolling through porn “to the point of distraction,” and interrogating his old sexual assumptions (“Am I a top? Or a bottom who’s always pretended to be a top?”), he’s dumbstruck by the blessing—and the burden—of his survival, and the life to come. 

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