Land’s End – Michael Cunningham

While I was cat-sitting for a friend recently, I read (or finished) five books in quick succession, and it wasn’t until I got there that I realised that three of them were books I got when I was in Washington DC last October. I mean, I bought so many books there that I was almost inevitably going to find them about my person somewhere (I jest…). I wonder if it’s worth keeping track of how longer I have books on my shelves before I read them, and see if 15 months is the optimum time…

Anyway, I bought Land’s End (2002) because I’ve been wanting to read more Michael Cunningham ever since I loved The Hours back in 2003 or thereabouts. I’ve only got as far as watching Evening, the adaptation of Susan Minot’s novel for which Cunningham wrote (or, rather, rewrote) the screenplay. I have to confess that I was also sold on the Cunningham because of this:

Thomas/My Porch informed me that signed Cunninghams are ten a penny Stateside (they have pennies in the US, right? Whilst we’re on that, how confusing is the tax thing there? You just have no idea how much you’ll have to pay when you get to the till). But this is something fun and rather special. And I had my fingers crossed that the book would also be fun and special…

It’s a non-fiction book about Provincetown, Massachusetts – the very tip of Cape Cod. My horrendously inadequate geographical knowledge was, for once, approaching adequate – as I had heard of Provincetown, and knew of its peninsular qualities and unusual character. For why, you ask? A couple of my favourite vloggers (Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart) went there during their HeyUSA tour, as you can see here. From which I learned that Provincetown is full of creative people and drag queens (with, presumably, some overlap).

Cunningham’s view of Provincetown is not as an insider or an outsider. He definitely defines himself in opposition to the tourists, who make the streets jam-packed during the summer months, so that getting groceries is almost impossible. But he does not live there all the year round, despite owning a house there; he prefers the anonymity of New York. Because Provincetown is apparently the gossip capital of the East, and everybody knows everybody. The year-round population (Wikipedia tells me) is around 3,000; this goes up to twenty times that number in summer.

I have trouble with travel literature. Visual descriptions don’t work for me, and writers of travel lit often want to give purple depictions of flora and fauna. But a genre I do love is memoir, and Cunningham treads the line between the two – falling, thankfully, more heavily into memoir. Or, rather, he describes Provincetown through a personal lens, rather than the anthropologist’s. If he is neither insider nor outsider to the town, then he is closer to the former than the latter.

The beautiful setting I read it in.

There is plenty for the anthropologist in Provincetown, though. Its character differs strongly from the surrounding area; it is (Cunningham says) the refuge of the outsider and eccentric. Some of those outsiders (and I now realise I’ve overused that word) are from the LGBT community, and – um – anything apparently goes in Provincetown. Cunningham very casually describes the beaches where you’ll find men having sex in the undergrowth, and those where you won’t. He mentions (and repeatedly re-mentions) this with such calm that it seems like a normal thing, to find people having sex when you pop down to build a sandcastle. Hmm…

But once we’ve left all that behind, I felt more at home in Provincetown – with its focus on art, friendliness, community, and (yes, I confess) gossip. Cunningham does a great job of explaining why he finds the town so special, more from the warm tone he uses than the facts he states. He incorporates the history of the town – did you know that the Pilgrim Fathers landed there first, before heading off to Plymouth Rock? – and its primary exports, but it is the affection with which he writes that really sells Provincetown.

I say ‘sells’; I still don’t think I’d go out of my to visit, still less live there, but anybody writing with wisdom and passion about their favourite place, and the experiences they have lived there, will win me over. From meeting his partner (and not forgetting his dramatic ex-partner) to the 2am gatherings outside a place that sells middle-of-the-night pizza, Land’s End is a curiously charming and almost old-fashioned depiction of a not-at-all old-fashioned place. Here is an excerpt to finish with, and to give you a taste of how he combines the personal and the observational:

If you do walk to Long Point, you will find yourself on a spit of sand about three hundred yards wide, with bay beach on one side, ocean beach on the other, and a swatch of dune grass running down the middle. It sports, like an austere ornament, a lighthouse and a long-empty shed once used to store oil for the light. You will be almost alone there, through the water around you will be thoroughly populated by boats. It is a favorite nesting ground for terns and gulls. When I went out there years ago with Christy, the man with whom I lived then, he strode into the dune grass and stirred up the birds. If I tell you that he stood exultantly among hundreds of shrieking white birds that circled and swooped furiously around him, looking just like a figure out of Dante, grinning majestically, while I stood by and worried about what it was doing to the birds, you may know everything you need to know about why we were together and why we had to part.
What a beautiful image, and moving reflection.

Anybody read this? Or been to Provincetown??

14 thoughts on “Land’s End – Michael Cunningham

  • December 10, 2014 at 2:57 am
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    The only time I have been to P-town was at the tail end of October, more or less the last gasp of the tourist season so it was lovely and quiet. I haven't read this Cunningham, but I think I own it. I want to know the other DC-purchased books you read during the cat sitting.

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    • December 10, 2014 at 11:50 pm
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      The other two were Old Books, Rare Friends by… two old ladies… and (appropriately enough!) The Fur Person that a very kind person gave me :)

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  • December 10, 2014 at 7:38 am
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    I've got this Cunningham on my wishlist as I would read ANYTHING he's written (A Home at the End of the World is one of my favourite books ever). Now I want it even more. Hope someone's realised that that was actually written on the wish list in flashing neon, not the more restrained colour that it appears on the page …

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    • December 10, 2014 at 11:50 pm
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      I also bought A Home at the End of the World while in DC, and haven't read it yet, so must make sure I do so soon!
      Hope your wishlist has the desired effect :)

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  • December 10, 2014 at 9:50 am
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    I've just read "A home at the end of the world" and loved it. Never read any of Cunningham's non-fiction (didn't know he'd written any), so this post encouraged me to go out and find some.

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    • December 10, 2014 at 11:51 pm
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      I really must read this soon, after all these endorsements for it! He is a fine writer.

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  • December 10, 2014 at 1:42 pm
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    I went there back in 2004 on hols to go whale-watching. Wandering through the side-streets we came across a little front garden to a house full of tableaux of Ken and Barbie dolls, some in drag, some very gay – my daughter who was not quite four thought it was fantastic! I have a photo. That and us both being sick on the whale-watching boat are my over-riding memories of P'town!

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    • December 10, 2014 at 11:51 pm
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      What an amusing snapshot of the trip! He does write about the whale-watching in the book, you've reminded me.

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  • December 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm
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    I haven't read it and I haven't been there, but I always find the idea of New England very, very appealing – even more so now I've read this review. And I *do* love travel writing – the best is always a mix of travel and memoir, at least in my reading experience!

    (kaggsysbookishramblings publishing anonymously because Blogger is messing with me today!)

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    • December 10, 2014 at 11:52 pm
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      If you love travel and memoir together then you will ADORE this book. Apparently it's in a series of similar books too… (he says, dangerously).

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  • December 10, 2014 at 11:32 pm
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    Well, when I ran away from my first husband to my second forty years ago we ran to Provincetown, and it was then just a sort of fishy peaceful place with a bit of a summer crowd. Sounds a bit raunchy now, but the important thing that this book doesn't seem to have conveyed is the beauty of Cape Cod. I know you don't go for luscious descriptions of place, but places do have their own atmosphere, light, and magic, and the Cape does have a great deal of that. I can't think of what to compare it to in the UK, maybe a bit of Cornwall or the Hebrides, but not really. It's enchanting and I hope you will visit one day, but you might do best to visit our Dove friend Sherry and skip the Provincetown jam! (Sherry will thank me!)

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    • December 10, 2014 at 11:53 pm
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      Oh, is that where Sherry is? I never remember where people live, unless I've been there myself…
      The book might well have conveyed that but, much as I would love it in person, I'm afraid I wouldn't have noticed it at all in the book – my fault, not Cunningham's!

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  • December 11, 2014 at 4:55 am
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    I keep this book in a stack in the guest room – it's a good 'pick up and put down' kind of read. I believe the poet Mary Oliver also lives year 'round in Provincetown.

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