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Paul Lisicky’s ‘Later’ conjures a queer utopia amid the AIDS crisis

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The opening scene of Paul Lisicky’s new memoir, “Later,” feels like the beginning notes of an aria. Lisicky gets into his car and drives away from his mother to the edge of his known world. The scene expands out like a song, about to spill into an aural ocean. The book’s repeating images — boats, sand, beasts, borders, sex, death — become the chorus. Dense and layered, the book crests with the lyrical resonance while looking back at a young, queer life gripped in the talons of loss, on the rim of death.

“Later” takes place from 1991 to 1994, when Lisicky moved to Provincetown, Mass., for a writing fellowship. Town, as it is called, in the ‘90s was in many ways a queer utopia, at least for gay men. “If you’re lucky in your life, a place, or two, will be offered to you,” Lisicky writes. “It will make you feel smarter than you are. It will make you younger, sturdier, more flexible in your joints and muscles. . . You move through its streets and paths aroused and alert. You can’t get that mischievous smile off your face. You want to put your hands on it, that place, that whole place.” Lisicky becomes close with his cohort of artists and cruises for sex, and over time develops both short- and long-term relationships But even at the start, this sweet utopia has a tinge of foreboding. His friends and acquaintances become ill; men at the gym start to look gaunt, friends and partners of friends fade from behind their windows. As the AIDS crisis unfolds, Lisicky awakens to the messy and devastating ways people navigate loss, hate and bigotry. “I’ve been given the cake of the afterlife and I can’t help but taste the chemical on my tongue,” he writes.

In layered, poetic, self-aware prose, Lisicky reckons with the tensions between the freedom of community and its insularity; between dark desire and animalistic power; between sex and death. Lisicky explores the devastating, hard-to-look-at idea that death bonds the queer community through sex. “Does danger make sex more erotic?” he asks of himself. “Would I even find it so compelling if I didn’t experience it as a bit of an obstacle course?. . . Would I feel this ache? Would I be missing something?”

And yet, he writes, “HIV is a hungry ghost: it wants to take away our sexuality before our health.”

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“Later” is not only a chronicle of the AIDS crisis, though its pages are inevitably permeated by that tragedy. Lisicky deftly weaves a story of a young gay man both jaded and alive, acutely observing the people and landscape around him, taking his freedom and power and questioning what these even are. “Later” moves in vignettes inextricably bound to one another, crescendoing at the end with a scene that is less cerebral but pumping with symbolism.

An aria is a long, accompanied solo song. “Later” is Lisicky’s solo, but it depends on the accompaniment — friends and lovers, parents, ghosts, art, sea, rebellion, sex, queerness as ideality. Town itself.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work appears in the Seattle Times, Electric Literature, LARB, LitHub and BuzzFeed, among other outlets.

By Paul Lisicky

Graywolf. 240 pp. $16

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