British author and scholar Jack Parlett’s latest non-fiction work Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise is a love letter to the hedonistic 32-mile-long queer haven just off New York City’s shore. Spanning the 20th century, appearances from historical figures such as James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde exhibit the transgressive nature of the island as it provided an elusive shroud for those who visited to revel in privacy amongst their peers. Home to the halcyon days of infamous cruising sights, bars where secrets were shared and beaches where couples fell in and out of love, the discretion of the Island allowed all those who visited to live in a haze of gay liberation.
Within his work, Parlett leads us from the early days when the Island’s reputation was just forming, to the riotous parties of the Stonewall disco-era and the community’s devastating confrontation with the AIDS epidemic. Often painted as a utopia, Parlett’s meticulously researched narrative holds the community accountable for their intemperance, as utopias have always owed an element of their existence to those they exclude while presenting the allure that existed for generations. Chronicling tales from the all-embracing space of Cherry Grove, the Pines community and life behind the sand dunes that provided shelter and refuge at a time when being gay meant living in constant fear.
While there is an extensive list of canonical texts surrounding Fire Island, all of which Parlett cites in a reading list at the end of his book, an enchantment with the American oasis still very much exists in the literary world today. Parlett tells us of their significance to his process: “Equally important to me were books that featured the island only briefly, or obliquely, but came to inform my thinking about the place in other ways. Work of poetry, prose and lyrics, many of them published very recently, that felt connected to the themes I was dealing with: sex, community, death, and desire.” We asked the author to recommend some of his favourite contemporary works that touch upon a fascination with Fire Island to add to your reading lists.
“I have often found myself looking, sometimes inadvertently, for replicas or doubles of Fire Island in the things I read. Andrew Durbin’s Skyland is a novella, and an account of the narrator’s trip to the Greek island of Patmos, in search of an elusive painting of the gay French writer Herve Guibert.
Something about the libidinal atmosphere of the book, and its representations of encounters on the island’s beach, fulfilled that strange need in me for points of comparison, although Patmos is a very particular place, not at all like Fire Island in many ways, and Durbin illustrates its quirks and orthodoxies deftly. I’d really admired Durbin’s previous book MacArthur Park, which seemed to me to belong in the lineage of gay New Narrative writing, and had a (fairly hellish) scene of champagne and intoxication on Fire Island. Skyland feels in some ways like a continuation of the auto-fictional project laid out by MacArthur Park, erudite and compelling. A book to return to.”
“I first saw this show at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 2019, when I was in the city doing research for the Fire Island book. I haven’t been able to get enough of it since.
The song Exile in Gayville, which riffs upon Liz Phair’s song Exile in Guyville, manages to fit in a rhyme with Sayville, the Long Island town that the ferry for Cherry Grove and the Pines [Fire Island’s queer communities] leaves from. It’s a particularly catchy number among an album of catchy, funny, poignant songs; an account of Black queer life with a critique of white gay male ‘savagery’ and the sexual marketplace, represented in the lyrics about an ‘orgy in Fire Island Pines.’ The soundtracks (the original 2019 version and the 2022 Broadway version) are available to stream, but it’s also really satisfying to read the play-text, which contains the dialogue and narration between the songs. It’s such a smart and formally daring work.”
“Several of the compositional scenarios in this poetry collection occur in or around Fire Island. They are simple but charged – looking at a man on the train out to the Hamptons, observing gay men at a pool party in the Pines – and sometimes comical – being hungover and watching Andy Cohen walk by along the Fire Island beach. Fitzpatrick’s speaker unpacks the politics of these encounters, their implications for how we think about belonging and about embodiment, in such incisive ways. Her poems are nuanced and finely wrought, and this is a beautiful collection.”
“Sophie Robinson is one of my favourite contemporary poets. This collection has a Fire Island poem in it, Fucking Up On The Rocks, which features a figure called Jameson, and like one of Fitzpatrick’s Fire Island poems, it is also an homage to poet Frank O’Hara, who died in 1966 as a result of a dune buggy accident on the beach there. Robinson calls him ‘my favourite alcoholic/the greatest homosexual who ever lived & died.’ The poems in Rabbit are wrenching and wise. There are many moments in this collection that have had a great impact on me; have altered the way I think (or feel) about thirst, and what it means to imagine utopias, the ‘places in which the mind thrives like plankton’, as Robinson puts it.”
“The work of Assotto Saint has been out-of-print and hard to get hold of for a long time. A new edition of his collected works, Spells of a Voodoo Doll, is going to be published by Nightboat Books next year, in February, so there isn’t too long to wait. I read him a lot while I was working on Fire Island, as I’d been told by fellow poets and friends of Yves (Lubin, his birth name), that he’d been to Fire Island several times with his partner, Jan Holmgren in the late 80s and 90s. It crops up as a location in his poems sometimes. Saint was a multidisciplinary artist, performer and author; he wrote plays, poetry and fiction, as well as powerful essays about living with AIDS (there is one called Sacred Life: Art and AIDS.) His writing is vivid and exciting and really important. This new edition of his work feels like a huge event.”