Vintage, £6.99

Land's End: a walk through Provincetown, by Michael Cunningham

A sliver of land on the fringe of Bohemia

Provincetown lies between America and the rest of the world, a tentative slip of sand subconsciously familiar to every transatlantic passenger. You glimpse its twinkling curlicue 2,000 feet as you fly back into European time. In Land's End, Michael Cunningham - the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours - performs his own time-travel, back into the memory of one of America's oldest colonial settlements.

Part New England village, part gay resort, Provincetown separates into a West End and an East End. The former is a place of pneumatic pecs and the blasphemous whiff of amyl nitrate on a Sunday afternoon; the latter, of vintage Cape Cod clapboard, cottage gardens and just one brick house. It belongs to Norman Mailer, the now-arthritic sacred monster of American letters.

Provincetown is many things to many people. In the East End, you might be stopped, as I was two summers ago, by a young girl selling home-made lemonade for a dollar a cup. Up at Herring Cove, men whom Cunningham sees as modern satyrs besport themselves carnally in dunes.

These lives coexist, seemingly content with one another. Salt-grey boarding houses, once home to Ahab-like whaling captains, are now run by legendary figures such as Frank Schaefer, a German émigré whose household will, at any one moment, contain poets, drag artists, WASPy families and innumerable works of art. In Cunningham's exquisite prose, these people and places take on a mythic quality, representative of a benevolent, almost utopian enclave of America, hymned by Thoreau as a "filmy sliver of land... where everything seemed to be gently lapsing into futurity".

Here Eugene O'Neill pitched up (dressed as a sailor) in the 1910s to stage his early dramas in a makeshift theatre where waves lapped under the floorboards. Tennessee Williams and Billie Holiday hung out in the Atlantic House, a darkened pub whose tarry timbers are suffused with a century of alcohol and sex.

In the Fifties, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko painted here; in the Sixties, Andy Warhol brought his Exploding Plastic Inevitable to town. In the Seventies, John Waters - still a summertime resident - introduced his transvestite movie star, Divine, to the place. And in the Eighties, Cunningham was offered asylum by the Fine Arts Work Center, a kind of commune for writers and artists. This book is his love-letter to the place which helped to kick-start his literary career.

Having been seduced by Provincetown's charms, I read Cunningham's transcendently beautiful book with a vague unease at its secrets being revealed. But ever since the Pilgrims first touched land there, this sandy fist has remained as aloof from its colonists as the humpback whales which encircle it. As Cunningham writes, "the old bayfront houses will go on dreaming, at least until the emptiness between their boards proves more durable than the boards themselves."

 

The reviewer's 'Spike Island' is published by Fourth Estate

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits