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