Fire Island Is Both a Paradise and a Contradiction

Jack Parlett's irresistable new book and the Fire Island movie lay bare the complexities of this queer summer haven.

Fire Island Is Both a Paradise and a Contradiction
Image:Hanover Square Press

The first rule of Fire Island is: You talk about Fire Island—a lot. Hulu’s recent movie, directed by Andrew Ahn, goes down as easy as a vodka soda on an 85-degree summer day, which makes the plate-spinning of the screenplay by Joel Kim Booster (who also stars in the movie) that much more impressive. Not only does the film graft modern gay proto-romance (that is, the period of time when two people are kind to each other before fucking) onto the template of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, it explains to the uninitiated the draw of the titular strip of land off New York’s Long Island that is home to several small resort towns. The film takes place in two such towns known for their predominantly queer populations, rich cultural history, and contemporary decadence: Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines.

For many who go and/or aspire to do so, Fire Island is synonymous with these two towns, much like how Kleenex has come to describe facial tissue. Booster’s script likewise accounts for the conflicting takes that fling back and forth among people with strong opinions about Fire Island. According to the character he plays, Noah, Fire Island is “like gay Disney World: fun for the whole family,” and “literally…paradise.” Noah says this despite admitting to feeling mostly invisible to the island’s larger white, gay population as an Asian-American. Other characters are less charitable with their ambivalence: “This place is so toxic,” says Howie (Bowen Yang). Yet he, Noah, and a few of their friends return, year after year, like flies to top-shelf shit. “This place is like a playground for superficial, vapid morons,” says Will (Conrad Ricamora). He’s later surprised to encounter Noah engrossed in an Alice Munro story collection.

Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora, and Joel Kim Booster of Fire Island. Photo:Monica Schipper / Stringer (Getty Images)

“People don’t understand that it’s possible to believe in a thing and ridicule it at the same time,” might as well be the movie’s credo, but it was actually said some 75 years ago by gay poet W. H. Auden, who summered on the island and wrote about it at length. Fire Island looks like heaven and can feel like hell. It can also be affirming, a haven that justifies its own existence as a queer hub even in the age of marriage equality, even when the options for people to live out and proud have expanded considerably since the ‘30s, when queer populations first started making Cherry Grove their own.

That Auden quote originally appeared in a 1947 issue of Time and is reprinted in a new book by Jack Parlett called Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise. If Booster’s task of conveying the Fire Island experience while weaving a coherent and frothy romance was a clear challenge, Parlett’s task of compacting about 100 years of cultural history into a slim volume would seem nearly impossible. That is, if he weren’t such a deft storyteller. His book breezes by with beach-read ease but is packed with enough facts, theories, and anecdotes to inspire weeks’ worth of dinner conversations. Though they’re very different projects with very different audiences and hang-ups, both the Fire Island movie and Fire Island book demystify the Fire Island experience and repeatedly uncover ambivalence, as if the only way to really understand a place is to see its complexities laid bare.

The U.K.-bred Parlett came to know Fire Island as he wrote about it. He maintains a healthy distance from his subject, an intellectual appreciation that never quite surrenders to its charms. In Parlett’s view, Fire Island is a place where “such contradictions are brought together; youth and death, glamour and grit,” where “joy and hedonism could be meaningfully balanced with rumination.” The decimation of the largely gay male population of the ‘80s and ‘90s as a result of AIDS only intensified the island’s multivalence: “For those who remained, a summer in the Pines could produce not only a strange sense of survivor’s guilt, but a nostalgia, for a time only recently lost.” Strange senses abound—one of the most famous gay American artists of all time, Robert Mapplethorpe, described his own F.I.-induced ambivalence to a local paper like this, according to Parlett’s research: “If I’m not there I think I’m missing something and when I’m there, I’m not sure it’s really what I want.” Even a certified master of capturing gay life couldn’t wrap his head around what he was supposed to wrap his head around.

Mapplethorpe’s experience is but one of several highlighted by Parlett, who wrote his PhD thesis about American poetry and cruising. Parlett’s history relies heavily on the accounts and experiences of titans of literature who graced the island’s shores: the aforementioned Auden; Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran, whose 1978 novels Faggots and Dancer from the Dance portrayed Fire Island’s pre-AIDS bacchanalia; Truman Capote, who began writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the island; Patricia Highsmith and Carson McCullers, who were part of Cherry Grove’s lesbian literati; James Baldwin, who used the island as a writer’s retreat, which through today’s lens seems about as useful as using a nightclub as a nap spot. “What did I want from Fire Island?” writes Parlett. “I had gone there, in part, to commune with its ghosts.”

In August 1983, beachgoers and vacationers stroll down Cherry Grove’s business district on Fire Island, New York. Photo:Photo by Jim Peppler/ Newsday RM (Getty Images)

This communion tethers real lives to the brisk history of the island that forms the spine of Parlett’s book. Readers are shuttled from the island’s earliest inhabitants, the Secatogue tribe, to the conceptualization of the summer vacation in the 1820s, to the early popularity of another of the island’s towns, Ocean Beach, which attracted queer people who worked on Broadway as early as the 1920s. In search of a place of their own, this crowd chose the less developed Cherry Grove, which wasn’t outfitted with electricity until the ‘60s. Another key event in the Grove’s development was its temporary destruction via the so-called Great Hurricane of 1938. As a result of the devastating storm, Parlett writes:

Rental and property prices plummeted, and for a brief period you could buy a summer house in the Grove for a song. Empty lots were being sold for as little as $50. As the history of queer neighborhoods the world over tells us, such enclaves usually form, in the first instance, as a result of cheap rents in run-down areas.

Parlett’s narrative of Fire Island is fundamentally about the cycle of death and renewal. In the early ‘50s, boardwalks were laid down in the Pines, whose harbor attracted a wealthier yachting and sailing crowd. Just a few decades later, AIDS would wipe out a large part of that population. The disease, the growing popularity of the Pines over the Grove among gay men, and “the steadily increasing economic power of women at this time” helped define Cherry Grove as the island’s lesbian alcove.

In Parlett’s view, Fire Island is a place where “such contradictions are brought together; youth and death, glamour and grit,” where “joy and hedonism could be meaningfully balanced with rumination.”

“The decimation of the island’s gay community shed light on the fragility of the past, on how easily tales and stories could die with their protagonists,” writes Parlett, who takes his job as preservationist seriously. The writer tastefully sprinkles in his own experiences on the island, another way he imbues his history and analysis with actual human breath. “Being in the Pines had opened up in me a desire for desire itself: to feel embodied, to be connected with other bodies,” Parlett reflects. But the “impossibly” sculpted nature of those bodies that have been a mainstay of queer Fire Island since virtually the beginning creates a dissonance: “It was a dizzying and excessive and not altogether pleasant feeling, perhaps because it reflected my own limitations and insecurities.” He carried the island home in his psyche: “After going to Fire Island for the first time, my equilibrium had been shaken a little, and back in Manhattan, I could feel myself becoming more neurotic about my eating and exercise habits.”

That’s from a chapter called “Body Fascism,” which explores the fitness aspirations of so many gay men, as said aspirations and their attendant insecurities have reverberated through time; the exposure to supposed perfection saddled Auden, who in a 1947 letter bemoaned that he was, “really too fat to waddle around exposed.” Auden also complained about his proximal “sisters” who behaved with “provocative indiscretion and then think they’re martyrs when there’s a reaction.” Moralizing echoes carried through the AIDS era, when gay men who’d fought for sexual liberation were suddenly told to cage their sexuality.

Parlett, though, resists such moralizing; he establishes moral quandaries. He allows contradictions to sit next to each other uncomfortably. The Fire Island gay—that is, the composite notion of a typical island inhabitant based on experience and inference alike, and informed by the perceiver’s own insecurities—“is someone who can make you feel bad about yourself just by the way he looks and moves.” But Parlett also points out that historically the “singling out of Fire Island gays as vain and irresponsible was conservatism in different clothes, wedded to a politics of respectability that is not so far away from the rightwingers who use community division to stoke the fires of their own prejudiced views.”

Audience members at a concert in “Pines 99″ on Fire Island in August 1999. Photo:Hiroyuki Ito (Getty Images)

Fire Island is 32 miles long, but it’s home to what might as well be infinite impressions and experiences. “Paradise reminds us of who we are and are not, of who we have in mind in its design,” writes Parlett. The last section of his book takes on contemporary efforts to diversify the Pines and Grove at least in terms of race. Many today rhapsodize Fire Island, others bemoan it, and still others see it through the lens of hope. Reading this section reminded me of a line in Jeremy Atherton Lin’s 2021 book Gay Bar, which shares a roving lens and interest in synthesizing memoir and cultural analysis with Parlett’s book: “If my experiences in gay bars have been disappointing, what I wouldn’t want to lose is the expectation of a better night.”

Parlett writes an adjacent sentiment toward the end of his wonderful book: “We can remember Fire Island not as a false paradise, or a paradise already lost, but as an extant, changing site, alive and livable, suspended in the present of a shared moment, and still ripe for rewriting.” A movie like Fire Island—boldly named so as to suggest a definitive experience, while told from the point of view of the often “invisible” Asian-American men who barely make a mark in even a book as detailed, inclusive, and compassionate as Parlett’s—seems to understand this implicitly. To exist in a state of hope for more and better is to erect your own mental paradise. Doing so in actual paradise is all the more satisfying.

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