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P-town's ups and dunes: is Provincetown a peaceful gay haven or a once-charmed village looted by gay tourists? As two new books suggest, it all depends on whom you ask.

Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape * Peter Manso * Scribner * $25

Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown * Michael Cunningham * Crown Journeys * $16

Twelve years ago I took a boat from Boston on my first trip to Provincetown. Approaching the former fishing village, founded in the 18th century on a sandbar at the end of Massachusetts's Cape Cod, I chuckled in awe at the crown of white steeples, the rustic wharves, and the looming stone watchtower on the horizon. On land, I en countered more drag queens, lesbians, heterosexual cross-dressers, gay Republicans, and sexual fluidity in a single week than I had in my entire life. I have returned every year since, lately spending half the summer snared by the rugged landscape and laissez-faire lifestyle.

Two new books, one by a sensationalistic straight writer, the other by a Pulitzer Prize-winning gay novelist, offer two distinct, and distinctly engrossing, views of the quixotic New England town. The more controversial--residents of Provincetown were abuzz about it months before publication--is Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape by Peter Manso. The book lives up to its subtitle--if not in substance, then at least in the gay-obsessed author's relentless preoccupations. Here's the kind of information he finds noteworthy: "The men who come to Ptown for sex--and that's most of them--have their own vocabulary: Rice Queen: anyone attracted only to Asians ... Chocolate Queen: those who like only blacks ... Potato Queen: those who only like whites."

The book is full of curiously derived facts. Manso writes about the town's infamous public sex spot: "Occasionally, local straight men visit the Dick Dock to receive a competent blow job, but if they see the person who serviced them the next day on the street, they do not acknowledge him."

Ultimately, one is left to imagine Manso's method of obtaining data, since this 307-page book contains only 27 footnotes. The whole project is so haphazardly researched and edited that Manso even describes one of gay Provincetown's drugs of choice as "GBH." (Frankly, I have no idea how popular GHB is; I am that apparently rare gay man who goes to Provincetown to read by the water and ride the bike trails.)

The impression is not so much homophobic as clueless. Although Manso's survey of Provincetown's century-old art scene is perfunctory, he does, toward the book's end, convincingly project a bleak cultural future for a town whose artist colony and Portuguese fishing community have been gradually replaced by rich vacationing lesbians and gays. But by then Manso has packaged so much idiocy as insight that any faith in his judgment is permanently shipwrecked.

In Land's End: A Walk in Province-town, Michael Cunningham presents no grand opinions disguised as fact--just a lot of grand opinions. "With this book I hope to offer neither more nor less of my own particular devotion," he writes, Cunningham alternates between the personal (such as his disappointing first summer 20 years ago as a writing fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center) and the historical (the beaching of more than 600 whales during the mid 1800s; playwright Eugene O'Neill's fruitful stay). He also includes prose and verse from such present and former residents as Norman Mailer, Mark Doty, and Denis Johnson.

An assured and engaging ham, Cunningham is the perfect guide, deftly capturing Provincetown's Dionysian delights and Apollonian beauty with wit, whimsy, and lyricism. For him, sex in the dunes is "innocently bacchanalian--more creaturely than lewd." And when he writes of the "gulls gliding overhead, white as bone china, searching from their high silence for whatever they might be able to eat down there among the dunes and marshes, the black rooftops, the little lights tossing on the water as the tides move out or in," I am back on the boat from Boston, reliving my first visit, memory and myth resonant still.

Bahr has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Poets & Writers.
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Author:Bahr, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Sep 3, 2002
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