Now in Paperback: By Nightfall
by Michael Cunningham
When Michael Cunningham’s novel By Nightfall appeared in 2010, wiser judges of contemporary fiction than I pronounced on its strengths and weaknesses. According to the bizarre metric that commands US harcovers to have the ugliest designs in the world, the dust-jacket illustration of that original edition featured a sepia-toned photograph of a mop. This new paperback features a very pleasing cover design by the immensely talented Henry Sene Yee (who was once a youthful cohort of the equally-talented Alan Dingman), so we can dispense with kitchen utensils and settle right in.
Cunningham’s novel features Peter and Rebecca Harris, a prosperous Manhattan couple in their forties. Rebecca is an editor, a tough-minded and somewhat off-putting fading former hellcat beauty. Peter is an art dealer with a penchant for mid-life self-doubt (he’s basically Flan Kittredge from Six Degrees of Separation, only more desperate and more biddable) and late-night recriminations:
It’s your life, quite possibly your only one. Still you find yourself having a vodka at three a.m., waiting for your pill to kick in, with time ticking through you and your own ghost already wandering among your rooms.
When the novel opens, our couple are in a taxi on their way to a party. They’re stalled in the traffic caused by an accident: one of those “inscrutable” (it’s Cunningham’s favorite adjective in this book) Central Park carriage-horses has been struck and killed by a car, and as a result, the lanes are barely moving. Peter glances out the window and sees a car filled with “brawny boys tarted up for Saturday night” – and he notices not only the flex of their muscles and the shine of their pomade but also the presence, in the back seat, of a much older man, likewise tarted up and lasciviously enjoying the company. It’s typically sharp foreshadowing for Cunningham to have Peter see this, and equally sharp to have him instantly convince himself that it’s nothing he really needs to tell Rebecca he saw: the older man in that car has made decisions that will soon confront Peter, and who knows which of them would more envy the other?
Those decisions arrive in the form of Ethan, Rebecca’s twenty-three-year-old brother, known to his family as “Mizzy” (heartless shorthand for “The Mistake”), a ‘recovering’ drug addict who comes to stay with the couple for a distressingly open-ended duration. Mizzy has travelled to stereotypically student-y locations (a temple in Japan, etc) and is looking to bring some focus to his perpetually unfocused life. He immediately introduces an element of chaos-magic into the settled world Peter describes to himself so witheringly:
The Chris Lehrecke daybed, the Eames coffee table, the austerely perfect nineteenth-century rocking chair, the Sputnik-inspired fifties chandelier that keeps (they hope) the rest of it from seeming too solemn and self-important. The books and the candlesticks and the rugs. The art.
Peter thinks of himself as very consciously trapped in this world, but his obsessed-over mid-life crisis keeps sending him warning signals, hints of paths not taken:
He can feel something, roiling at the edges of the world. Some skittery attentiveness, a dark gold nimbus studded with living lights like fish in the deep black ocean; a hybrid of galaxy and sultan’s treasure and chaotic, inscrutable deity.
If by now you’re feeling reminded of something, you’re not wrong: that something is Peter Shaffer’s Equus, and Peter is a fair enough stand-in for Martin Dysart, the buttoned-down psychiatrist who becomes fascinated by horse-obsessed wild-child Alan Strang (in that opening scene of the novel, Peter tellingly wishes the body of the dead horse weren’t covered over, that he could see “yellow teeth bared, tongue lolling, blood black on the pavement”)(later in the book, when Peter impulsively offers Mizzy a pill, it’s Klonopin – a horse tranquilizer), except, again, more biddable. In scene after masterfully realized scene, Peter convinces himself that he desperately misses his wife’s long-gone youth, and that Mizzy might somehow be a door back to it:
He wants, for at least a little while, to live in that other, darker world – Blake’s London, Courbet’s Paris; raucous, unsanitary places where good behavior was the province of decent, ordinary people who produced now works of genius. God knows, Peter is no genius, and Mizzy isn’t, either, but maybe the two of them could wander off the map a little, maybe it’s what he’s been waiting for, and because life is, as they say, full of surprises, it’s arrived not in the form of a great young artist but in the form of a young male version of Peter’s wife …
Like Dysart, Peter comes to some devastating conclusions about himself as a result of the boy (don’t expect more: all the von Aschenbachs these days wind things up not by dying but by going home and heating some dinner), although Cunningham is not yet at a point in his career where he would risk offending the almighty book-group buying crowd with an unhappy ending. The novel this might have been, in which Mizzy has the courage of his flirtations and Peter has the courage – or the confident delusion – of that man in the back seat, never materializes, although it comes close (the moment of truth, of course, takes place in a Starbucks).
Along the way, there are some curious affectations (in a writer of weaker gifts than Cunningham, I’d probably call them flaws). There’s a repeated fawning on the rich (“the energy these people possess. The degree to which they care”) that perhaps betokens the company Cunningham keeps these days (in his Acknowledgments he thanks the gorgeous young actor Hugh Dancy, who would be perfectly cast as Mizzy), and there’s some Brooklyn-bashing (accurate, but unsportsmanlike) that’s not quite convincingly enough imputed to Peter rather than our author.
But these are minor things; the main impression of re-reading this novel is just how good it all is: smart, assured, immensely charismatic and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.