|A Review byRebecca James|
|Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown Michael Cunningham, 2002
A few years ago, a well-bronzed man with that ageless, moisturized sheen accomplished only through regular facials and a large disposable income said to me, "Honey, there are only three beach scenes worth visiting if you're gay: Puerto Vallarta, Rehoboth, and Provincetown." I think his criteria for this deduction was based less on the quality of water, weather, and sand, and more on a different type of beauty. While he appreciated the clearer, warmer waters of P.V. and the cultural events of Rehoboth, he was clearly a connoisseur of physical male perfection. His travels matched the tourist seasons. He was interested in excitement, the heat, the anonymity guaranteed him by the peak in population.
In summertime P-town, he might delight in a scene similar to that described by Michael Cunningham in Land's End: "In this bright, tidal landscape the men having sex [in the beach grasses] always seem, at least to me, innocently bacchanalianmore creaturely than lewd. They seem to belong to a different version of the world, a more sylvan and semi-classical one, shameless and wild. They seem to have been freed from their labors and sorrows, their fears, even their hopes, and been given a summer hour or two in which desire is all that matters." Cunningham acknowledges, even respects, this untamed aspect of P-town throughout the book; he does not celebrate it over other moods, but instead recognizes the need for the intensity of the short summer tourist season to balance the quiet, introspective nature of the fall and winter, his favorite seasons.
I had been to Provincetown once, for a short week's visit in June, when the town seemed to be stretching and awakening. (July is when tourist season truly hits, just like in Rehoboth.) It was as if I, too, were just being released from a long, misty stillness similar to that which Cunningham describes surrounding P-town throughout the spring. I stayed there with a man who, through some degree of kind masochism, still remains my friend even after I confessed that the sight of his ex-girlfriend holding hands with her partner in public appealed to me more than sleeping with him. At twenty, however, I was still able to balance these two selves, drunk with new tastes and sights. He led me, carefully, through the quaint and bustling Commercial Street to witness all the different ways of living that Cunningham details: the tattooed lesbian, the fishermen, the drag queen, the gay parents, the exhausted but highly entertained elderly day-trippers. I loved it all. Later, my friend expressed guilt over his relationship with me while I was coming out that summer. Nonsense, I told him. He introduced me to a world I never knew could exist.
Cunningham's book, which preceded his latest and very popular novel, Specimen Days, published just last month, is called Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown, a non-fiction examination ofreally, a walk throughthe writer's frequent muse, Provincetown. A long-devoted fan of the town's off-season, Cunningham is in good company whenever he travels to the tip of the Massachusetts Cape. Land's End sprinkles the history of the town, long a haven of writers, artists, and radical thinkers, with contemporary observations. Actually the original landing site of the Mayflower, Provincetown has served as the temporary home base of well-known writers Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, and Eugene O'Neill, among many others, as they found solace in exactly the beauty that Cunningham most appreciated, really the opposite of the trendy traveler who endorsed the town so spectacularly to me.
Cunningham pays a breathless respect to the cyclical nature of Provincetown. He seems like more of an observer of the summertime antics, although he has clearly at one time or another been drawn to the wilder side of the town. His description of the winter is most powerful, however: "To whatever extent beauty resides in permanence, this is Provincetown at its most beautifulit seems, in its winter slumber, to be revealed in its actual state, without its jewelry or feathers, like a white marble queen; a woman who, in life, may have been irritable and erratic, prone to sulks, too easily cheered by velvets and brocades; now asleep forever in a cathedral close, her eyes peacefully shut, her face arranged in an expression of mournful bemusement as the living flit by with their cameras and candles, their little prayers."
I see that kind of solace in Rehoboth, to some extent. The days are long past when Rehoboth had the same type of isolation the winter residents of Provincetown feel. These days, there is a burgeoning weekend population year-round. Enter the town limits on a damp, gray weekday afternoon in January, however, and you may get a taste of what Cunningham is drawn to in Provincetown. A handful of shops are open at this time of year, parking spaces abound, and most of the few faces you see on the streets are familiar, the colorful characters concealed by the crowds of summer, the dedicated local business owners. The town slows down. A walk to the post office from my former post at the local bookstore is, geographically, about half a block. In off-season Rehoboth time, however, that was a thirty-minute journey. I had to reacquaint myself with my favorite dogs, joke with Rick behind the post office counter, catch up with restaurant servers on temporary hiatus. It was my favorite time. I've lost that weekday feel, having become a "weekender" myself, but I hope to recapture it soon enough.
Cunningham's non-fiction is as compelling as his more popular novels. He writes with a keen sense of observation and eye for seeing the essence of the small town. Rehoboth and
P-town fans, whether summer visitors or year-round devotees, will gain a true sense of the constantly shifting beauty of the seasonal town, beyond the glaring, hot excitement of summer and into the quiet reprieve of fall and winter.
Rebecca James, a high school English teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, divides her time between Allentown and Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 10 July 29, 2005