A mid-life crisis narrative (told only in the intimate, secretly devilish way we have come to expect from Michael Cunningham) follows the very clandestine inner-life of Peter Harris, an aging art dealer living in New York City’s posh Soho.
Private is one of the myriad of words that come to mind after finishing Cunningham’s latest novel, By Nightfall. Harris lives with his wife, Rebecca, and her much younger, Adonis-like brother Ethan (nicknamed Mizzy – the Mistake) comes to stay with the couple, while Bea, Harris’ daughter is away in Boston.
Harris’ interiority, his rhetorical questioning can, at times, feel over-done. However, as you allow yourself deeper into this man’s psyche (complicated by numerous travails), but who, still wears Prada loafers and spends time with NYC elite, you start to understand, to love, what this man is thinking. Perhaps there is more than a mid-life crisis at work here: a story of lust, devotion to family, yearning, even sacrifice. After all, Harris has sacrificed his life to Art, his wife to Mizzy’s “drug problems” (because he can’t bring himself to tell her Mizzy is using again). Though, he never really thinks of himself as having sacrificed, except, maybe in the death of his brother that he experienced at a very young age, Harris questions all of his actions—all of his mistakes.
The erotic pull that Ethan has on Harris is a plot complication only writers of Cunningham’s caliber could pull off. And it’s necessary, too. No one really wants to spend over 200 pages with a semi-straight, NYC bourgeois, do they? Especially in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Particularly when the protagonist seems to have everything he needs and more. Yet, there is no limit to the tragic internal tug-of-war Peter Harris endures. When he finds himself alone, walking the beach with his wife’s younger brother, he realizes he may be a “desperate man”.
That night as Harris lay in bed with his wife, he won’t tell her of his “other” feelings. Look at her, Harris insists the reader, as the two ready for sleep. “Look at her pale, aristocratic forehead and the firmness of her brow. Look at the modest parentheses of lines that bracket her mouth—she’d laugh at the idea of collagen. She will age bravely and do good work in a the difficult world and love the people she loves with direct, unwavering ferocity.”
Peter Harris loves his wife; he loves her brother just as he loves his daughter and his own dead brother. However, the reader will wonder, long after the book is finished, long after it’s piled away, stacked beneath papers –bills collecting dust, does Peter Harris love himself? I don’t think he knows himself enough to love. However, that’s what gives the book that very special Michael Cunningham appeal. It’s Clarissa and Richard from The Hours, again: in love but separated by sexuality and strength and longevity; yet another wrenching narrative of unrequited love, and unfulfilled dreams.