I rushed to get Michael Cunningham’s latest novel when it appeared. This writer just gets better and better.
Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall (238 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) tells the story of middle-aged angst and how it nearly destroys a loving couple. Peter and Rebecca Harris are in their early forties. They are both involved in the New York art scene. He runs a very good gallery, but of course he worries that it might be better. She edits an art magazine with a certain reputation, and in the short space of the action of the novel, it is almost bought out by a billionaire in Montana.
Peter and Rebecca are busy, and Cunningham does a great job of suggesting how their days are spent and what they do while they are at work. He spends more time with Peter, and it is Peter’s mind that we see from the inside; and for this, Cunningham has mastered the rhetoric of the art world and the anxieties that might beset an idealist gallery owner when he finds himself selling art that he is not even sure he likes.
Peter is unsure about a lot of things. He worries about what he will ever accomplish. It seems that although his gallery has had some successes, it is not of the first rank; and he is getting tired of waiting for the genius to come along to make him feel that this has all been worth it. Instead, he works with artists whom be admires but who also leave him wondering what he is doing.
Luckily, Peter has a German assistant Uta, who is fond of him--they almost had an affair some years before--and who does not tire of reminding him that it is not wrong to make money at this venture. When money-making schemes do come along--like an artist whom he might take on because a friend is giving up her business--Uta has to talk Peter out of the guilt he might feel.
Into this complicated world comes young Ethan, who is twenty years younger than his sister Rebecca, herself the youngest of three sisters. Ethan, known in the family as Mizzy, for “mistake,” is a rather feckless young man, in and out of school because of his involvement with drugs. Since college he has been hopping around the world hoping to find the meaning of life. When he turns up in New York to stay with Peter and Rebecca, Peter takes an interest in him, seemingly for the first time. He is constantly confronted with the naked, or semi-naked, young man, who seems nothing if not unselfconscious; but still Peter can’t get him out of his head.
Peter’s interest in the boy seems to take the shape of wanting to save him. After all, he is a beautiful and potentially talented young man, but the drugs are taking so much of his concentration that he could be said to be throwing his life away. Peter feels that he loves the boy because he is in so much trouble and also because he is so very beautiful and open and young.
Needless to say, an affair between Peter and Ethan is something that none of the characters, not even the principals, really want. The novel brings us to the brink of release, disaster, some kind of major change, but I won’t say what really happens. Anything could happen, and the greatness of this novel its ability to make us wonder.
Get a copy of By Nightfall at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.