FIRE ISLAND: A century in the life of an American paradiseby Jack Parlett
The few times I visited Fire Island, wearing glasses and pale, I felt out of place. Poet Jack Parlett, who describes himself as an “otter” or perhaps a “bear in training” and who also has mixed feelings about paradise, embraces his ambivalence and makes good literature out of it. Its concise, meticulously researched, centuries-spanning chronicle of queer life on Fire Island captures, with a simple yet lyrical touch, the power of the place to stun and shame, to indulge and symbolize evanescence. .
Fire Island, a 32-mile barrier island off the south shore of Long Island less than two hours from Manhattan, can lay claim to centuries of native habitation and “about seventeen different vacation communities”, including Cherry Grove and the Pines, where the strange plot thickens. The “wallflower sensibility” allows Parlett to be a skeptical but definitive narrator of the Fire Island carnival, a diorama that he embellishes with autobiographical asides: “Since I have known myself as a gay man, I have made the unconscious assumption that my own binge drinking habits were related to my sexuality. Quick personal insights transform her book into a hybrid act, a place-based memoir sketching the evolution of a community driven by sexual arrangements.
Parlett is no more optimistic than I about the possibilities of community, even if we yearn for it, but the book’s most practical insight comes when he recounts a therapist’s advice: “When you come across another gay on the street, give her a smile.” Parlett explains, “The queer community has always been adept at keeping up on such looks as they pass by.” To honor the perpetual afterlife of cruising, smile today to a stranger. Gaze for three more seconds. See what happens next.
Parlett entertains us with a grocery list of extras, cameos in a sword-and-sandal psycho-epic. Walt Whitman saw a “wild sea storm” on Fire Island. Claude Lévi-Strauss called it a place of “gay farce”. James Baldwin (who once wrote, “I don’t like bohemians, or bohemians, I don’t like people whose main goal is pleasure”) worked on a project of “Another Country” on Fire Island, where Janet Flanner, Patricia Highsmith and Carson McCullers held a sleazy court. Andy Warhol filmed “My Hustler” on the beach, where Derek Jarman then made a moody, prismatic Super 8 film. Liza Minnelli made a “papal visit” to Fire Island in 2012. I wish I had been transported there to receive the anointing.
James Dean stayed there as a “professional guest”. After her untimely death, poet Frank O’Hara wrote the star’s name as a funeral gesture in the sand of Fire Island. O’Hara himself died there (aged 40) after being hit by a dune buggy. His death reinforced the haunted necropolis status of the island: “The fact that he died on the beach of Fire Island continues to carry, in all its randomness, a sort of mythical weight. That night provides a moment where O’Hara’s own legacy as a beloved gay poet meets the story of a place that would become synonymous with a new kind of sexual citizenship. AIDS has devastated the island; elegiacally, Parlett placed poets (from Whitman and O’Hara to Melvin Dixon, Reginald Shepherd and Assotto Saint) at the center of the paradoxical story of Fire Island, a knotted skein of pestilence and paradise.
Parlett is quick-witted about gentrification, class, racism, and “structural privilege” built into the style of Fire Island, a hegemonic strand. The avant-garde 1970s newspaper, Fag Rag, forbade Fire Island from being mentioned “in poems submitted for publication”, but Parlett reminds us not to stereotype Fire Island, which contains diverse backgrounds: “It Interestingly, when people use ‘Fire Island’ as shorthand for bad gays, they’re usually talking about the Pines, rather than the more mixed and relaxed Cherry Grove. He pays filial attention to the archives and table talk of queer elders; cross-generational wisdom gives its tale its twilight bite. Delay and regret tint any point of view turned towards this oasis: “Fire Island always makes me think of Balbec”, he admits, referring to Proust’s own brand of seaside Elysium. To such lost destinations, we gaze with drunken lunar longing: “I felt the pull of heaven thinking.”
At its best, this book stages a searing yet incisive meditation on community, “ecological precariousness,” and the fleeting connections between place and sexuality. The island is evolving, its tired fixities metamorphosing into bold new positions: recently radical art projects (sponsored by the arts organization BOFFO) have brought in writers, artists and performers such as Sam Ashby, Leilah Babirye, Kia LaBeija and Jeremy O. Harris in this sandbar, a place eloquently described by Andrew Holleran as “thin as a parenthesis.” Expand on the thin addendum – maybe that’s the moral of the book. Extend the parenthesis of paradise to accommodate more of your messy heart. Parlett’s prose is never messy; its well-timed pulsations bring the light of the beach to the page.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s most recent book is “Ultramarine”, the third volume of his trilogy of trance poems.
FIRE ISLAND: A century in the life of an American paradise, by Jack Parlett | Illustrated | 269 pages | Press Place de Hanover | $27.99