From the Publisher
"His quirky guide...presents a very personal view of Provincetown, but at the same time it manages to convey the "peculiar, inscrutable intensity" characterizing the love so many people have for the place."Publishers Weekly
"Cunningham writes with the acuity of the Pulitzer winner that he is."Entertainment Weekly
"A leisurely walking tour and shrewd exposition of that “eccentrics' sanctuary”Provincetown, Massachusetts." Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham offers this evocative, quietly beautiful portrait of Provincetown -- a "spectacular" place at the tip of Cape Cod that is steeped in history -- as the first book in the Crown Journeys series.
Cunningham (The Hours) takes the reader on a leisurely, idiosyncratic tour of the fabled town at the tip of Cape Cod. He makes the rounds of his favorite haunts, from the beaches, marshes and dunes to businesses like the halfheartedly modernized Adams Pharmacy, which has a soda fountain from the 1940s; the Marine Specialties store, a repository of the overlooked, the lost, the surplus, the irregular, the no-longer-needed, and the outmoded; and the Atlantic House, a bar that is sexy in a damp, well-used way. The fish and whales that live in the ocean around the town have a place in his excursion, as do the dogs, cats, skunks, opossums and occasional coyotes that wander the streets. People interest him most, however the old-timer who sits in his yard, shouting, Hello hello hello, to everyone who passes by; the disheveled man who walks the main street night and day; and the more famous eccentrics, the refugees, rebels, and visionaries who have been coming to the town for nearly 400 years. There is also a large gay population, and Cunningham is especially fascinated by this community's flamboyant individuals, who add color even to the local A&P. His quirky guide, part of the Crown Journeys series, presents a very personal view of Provincetown, but at the same time it manages to convey the peculiar, inscrutable intensity characterizing the love so many people have for the place. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
A leisurely walking tour and shrewd exposition of that “eccentrics' sanctuary”—Provincetown, Massachusetts—from Pulitzer-winning novelist Cunningham (The Hours, 1998, etc.). It sits out in the Atlantic, the barb on Cape Cod's hook, a slip of land “that unfurls like a genie's shoe from the coastline of Massachusetts.” Only three miles long and a couple blocks wide, Provincetown is a world unto itself, intriguingly rendered by Cunningham. He takes his tour guide's responsibility seriously and eagerly, wanting readers to get both the grand and intimate view, animate, inanimate, and subanimate. He describes the wild swings of weather: bleached in August, the fog-muted greens of spring, winter revealing the “dreadful, rock-hard opulence of the world, that which remains when idealism and sentimentality have fallen away.” There are sturdy Baedekers to Long Point and the salt Marsh, the spare tranquility of Hatches Cove, the potent mysteriousness of Snail Road, Herring Cove's nude beach with its “unique opportunity to understand that the female breast is among the more profoundly variable of human wonders.” There is the undeniable sexuality of the place, gay and straight, “an improved version of the world at large, aversion in which sexuality, though always important, is not much of a deciding factor,” where “the Log Cabin Republican not only can't ignore the existence of stone butches but buys his coffee from one every morning.” Cunningham introduces its cast of refugees, rebels, and visionaries—from Mayflower Pilgrims to Robert Motherwell to the lady who walks only backwards—attracted by the exoticism and low rents (or, as viably, low-rent exoticism), and there are everyday notes on thepharmacy and A&P, the places where you can pee without having to buy something, the centers of buxom tawdriness, the Portuguese influence, the miraculous pleasures of watching whales, “green in the blue-green water, shadowy as an X-ray, netted with pallid light.” And “if I die tomorrow, Provincetown is where I want my ashes scattered.” That's a sense of place called home.
Read an Excerpt
PROVINCETOWN STANDS ON a finger of land at the tip of Cape Cod, the barb at the hook's end, a fragile and low-lying geological assertion that was once knitted together by the roots of trees. Most of the trees, however, were felled by early settlers, and now, with the forests gone, the land on which Provincetown is built is essentially a sandbar, tenuously connected to the mainland, continually reconfigured by the actions of tides. When Thoreau went there in the mid-1800s, he called it "a filmy sliver of land lying flat on the ocean, a mere reflection of a sand-bar on the haze above." It has not changed much since then, at least not when seen from a distance. Built as it is at the very end of the Cape, which unfurls like a genie's shoe from the coastline of Massachusetts, it follows the curve of a long, lazy spiral and looks not out to sea but in, toward the thicker arm of the Cape. The distant lights you see at night across the bay are the neighboring towns of Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham.If you stand on the beach on the harbor side, the ocean proper is behind you. If you turned around, walked diagonally through town and across the dunes to the other side, and sailed east, you'd dock eventually in Lisbon. By land, the only way back from Provincetown is the way you've come.
It is by no means inaccessible, but neither is it particularly easy to reach. In the 1700s storms or changes in currents sometimes washed away the single road that connected Provincetown to the rest of Cape Cod, and during those times it was reachable only by boat. Even when the weather and the ocean permitted, carriages that negotiated the sandy road often got stuck and sometimes capsized into the surf. Provincetown is now more firmly and reliably attached. You can drive there. It's almost exactly two hours from both Boston and Providence, if you don't hit traffic, though in summer that's unlikely. You can fly over from Boston, twenty-five minutes across the bay, and if you're lucky you might see whales breaching from the plane. In summer, from mid-May to Columbus Day, a ferry sails twice a day from Boston. Provincetown is by nature a destination. It is the land's end; it is not en route to anywhere else. One of its charms is the fact that those who go there have made some effort to do so.
Provincetown is three miles long and just slightly more than two blocks wide. Two streets run its entire length from east to west: Commercial, a narrow one-way street where almost all the businesses are, and Bradford, a more utilitarian two-way street a block north of Commercial.Residential roads, some of them barely one car wide, run at right angles on a semiregular grid between Commercial and Bradford streets and then, north of Bradford, meander out into dunes or modest hollows of surviving forest, as the terrain dictates. Although the town has been there since before 1720 (the year it was incorporated) and has survived any number of disastrous storms, it is still possible that a major hurricane, if it hit head-on, would simply sweep everything away, since Provincetown has no bedrock, no firm purchase of any kind. It is a city of sand, more or less the way Arctic settlements are cities of ice. A visitor in 1808 wrote to friends in England that the sand was "so light that it drifts about the houses ... similar to snow in a driving storm. There were no hard surfaces; upon stepping from the houses the foot sinks in the sand." Thoreau noted some forty years later, "The sand is the great enemy here ... . There was a schoolhouse filled with sand up to the tops of the desks."
The sand has, by now, been domesticated, and Provincetown floats on layers of asphalt, pavement, and brick. Still, any house with a garden has had its soil brought in from elsewhere. Some of the older houses produce their offerings of grass and flowers from earth brought over as ballast in the holds of ships in the 1800sit is soil that originated in Europe, Asia, or South America. On stormy days gusts of sand still blow through the streets.
There could be no other town like it. If you were sensitive to crowds, you might expire in summer from human propinquity. On the other hand, if you were unable to endure loneliness, the vessel of your person could fill with dread during the long winter. Martha's Vineyard, not fifty miles to the south and west, had lived through the upsurge of mountains and their erosion, through the rise and fall of oceans, the life and death of great forests and swamps. Dinosaurs had passed over Martha's Vineyard, and their bones were compacted into the bedrock. Glaciers had come and gone, sucking the island to the north, pushing it like a ferry to the south again. Martha's Vineyard had fossil deposits one million centuries old. The northern reach of Cape Cod, however, on which my house sat, the land I inhabitedthat long curving spit of shrub and dune that curves in upon itself in a spiral at the tip of the Capehad only been formed by wind and sea over the last ten thousand years. That cannot amount to more than a night of geological time.
Perhaps this is why Provincetown is so beautiful. Conceived at night (for one would swear it was created in the course of one dark storm) its sand flats still glistened in the dawn with the moist primeval innocence ofland exposing itself to the sun for the first time. Decade after decade, artists came to paint the light of Provincetown, and comparisons were made to the lagoons of Venice and the marshes of Holland, but then the summer ended and most of the painters left, and the long dingy undergarment of the gray New England winter, gray as the spirit of my mood, came down to visit. One remembered then that the land was only ten thousand years old, and one's ghosts had no roots. We did not have old Martha's Vineyard's fossil remains to subdue each spirit, no, there was nothing to domicile our specters who careened with the wind down the two long streets of our town which curved together around the bay like two spinsters on their promenade to church.
NORMAN MAILER, from Tough Guys Don't Dance
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Cunningham.