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By Nightfall

by Michael Cunningham

Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 238 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


Michael Cunningham's latest book, By Nightfall, is both earthy and metaphysical. It's also funny—very funny. Achieving all three—writing great sex scenes, then providing comic relief, while posing serious questions about mortality, seems a daunting task.Yet Cunningham writes effortlessly, building a complex, multi-layered structure where desire, grief, and reflection create an enormous friction. The book is very satisfying to read, as ripe and fruity as a good wine, as the sophisticated protagonist, Peter Harris, would jokingly say, for he is the hero of the novel.

Peter is the successful owner of an art gallery in New York City. He is also the husband of the beautiful, successful Rebecca, and father to Bea, erstwhile daughter who (much to her parents' consternation) has left college to become a bartender. There are good meals to consume and foreign movies (such as 8 ½) to watch. All is good in the world (besides the quiet tick of dissatisfaction about the daughter). But all of this is about to change. (Of course, the reader senses that beneath this life of outward physical comfort lies uncertainty, boredom, and restlessness.)

Enter stage left: Ethan Taylor, otherwise known as Mizzy, Rebecca's much younger—by twenty years—brother. Mizzy is unaccountably beautiful, rebellious, and flirtatious. He's been a druggie on and off for years, dabbling in heroin throughout his high school and college years, but he's also managed to be a glittering star, obliterating the dullness of those around him and drawing people to him like a prophet. He's also an aesthete, a man who doesn't seem to desire enough. He's come to his big sister straight from an unsuccessful "spiritual journey" to the Far East. It's a pattern he's repeated through the years, to come to big sis on the heels of disappointing love affairs (and there are many, with both men and women) and to dry out. This time he's going to try to "get it together" and do "something in the arts."

At first reluctant to have Mizzy, Peter soon becomes locked under his brother-in-law's mysterious spell—is the man/child still using? Will his beauty amount to anything? As a curator, Peter is consumed with the acquisition of beauty and the most enduring pieces of art. Ironically, he knows that he objectifies Mizzy, yet he's unable to stop himself. It doesn't help that Mizzy parades around the apartment naked. Peter soon finds out that Mizzy is indeed still buying drugs, but that only adds to the allure—Peter admits to himself that we have a hunger for destruction, especially the radical destruction of youth. Peter becomes voyeuristic, watching intently Mizzy's every move while drifting from Rebecca.

In one spellbinding scene, he pretends to sleep while Mizzy connects with a dealer and then indulges in the drugs he's procured. A thin wall separates the men, but Peter can hear every move the beautiful boy makes; it's as if they're irreversibly connected.

This book raises so many philosophical questions, especially about knowing the "other." Do we all experience life the same way or are we essentially different? How can we choose to be monogamous when there are so many others in the world? At one point in the story, Peter goes with an art collector friend to visit the Met. In one startling exhibition, a shark is housed inside a water and formaldehyde filled tank (a quick Google search confirms that this is a real exhibition, called "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," by Damien Hirst).

Observing the exhibition are some teens who are entranced by what they see, yet try to maintain their cool. There is one girl that Peter is especially taken with. Like Mizzy, she represents the fullness and possibility of youth. Peter realizes with a tinge of dismay that he will never know that girl, and that the connection he feels towards her (however precarious) will never be fully realized.

Perhaps we all have these highly personal, melodramatic moments of "recognition," our personal epiphanies, if you will. They can feel silly or irrelevant, yet they persist. They can consist of the elusive person you view in an airport or even the fleeting glimpse of someone in a moving car. Somehow you know—just know—that in another life…

One of these "moments" occurs for Peter when he brings Mizzy with him to deliver a four foot bronze urn to an art collector who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. The scene is amazingly rendered—everything from the eccentric art collector (a woman named Carole Potter, who is described as a "pale, freckled, blinking woman who seems always to have something small and wonderful in her mouth, a round pebble from the Himalayas, a pearl, that makes it ever so slightly difficult for her to speak clearly…") to the bulky, rather jaded art handlers--seems perfect.

While there, Mizzy and Peter steal away to the beach and exchange a passionate kiss. For Peter, this kiss becomes symbolic for him, a taste of a world that he could easily fall in to and as he goes about his life, "post kiss," this memory expands exponentially in his mind, teasing him with the possibility that he is gay.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of humor in this book. Peter often undercuts his lofty musings by funny asides. When he's having sex, he says he's not exactly a porn star and about being gay he thinks: "Accept that, like many men, you have a streak of the homoerotic in you. Why would you, why would anyone want to be that straight?"

The parts of this book that deal with the New York art world are most enjoyable, including the daily work of a curator. Cunningham deliciously describes the art world and artwork—some of it facile and childish, some of it urbane and reckless. He's looking for that one genius, a piece of art that will have lasting value, but has to deal with lots of trivial annoyances, such as the personalities of the artists, to get there.

Peter goes to visit the "urn" creator, Groff, in his studio, depicting Groff as a sort of child/demi-God, a somewhat spoiled, but not completely egotistical artist. The many strands in this book depict how we deal with friends, work, lovers, acquaintances, and children. There is also the question of family and how Peter comes to terms with the death of his brother, Matthew, of AIDS.

At one point, Peter, the insomniac, looks out his window and sees another night wanderer by the light of the window. Strangely, he has never seen the older man before. It's as if Peter views the man he is to become. The recognition is startling and speaks of the ghosts that haunt us in our world: "…it's as if Peter isn't here at all, and it occurs to him (is this the pill taking effect already?) that he may in fact be invisible, that he may be his own ghost, dead in his sleep, risen invisibly to watch himself at seventy-plus….Maybe the dead don't understand they're dead…"

How can we exist, knowing the inevitable…possibly by love? Cunningham probes this question and more in this exquisite novel.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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