Michael Cunningham opens his new novel, By Nightfall, with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” In the hands of this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer you know the terror will not be the beast in the lake or a stalker on the net. The terror will be what’s in the heart. That is the lurking menace.
By Nightfall is the story of Peter Harris, a middle-aged art dealer in Manhattan. Cunningham, who is gifted at describing the “moments in between,” introduces us to Peter in a moment typical of all New Yorkers: stuck in traffic, en route to a cocktail party uptown. The taxi is stuck. Inside, Peter and his wife, Rebecca, are stuck.
They are forty-somethings, urban empty nesters figuring out what’s next now that their college-aged daughter Bea has left for Boston (although not strictly for academic reasons, more likely to escape). Rebecca has announced that her 22-year-old brother Ethan, a k a Mizzy – the family’s extreme shorthand for “the Mistake” – is crashing at their apartment for an undisclosed amount of time.
There is plenty of physical room at their downtown loft with Bea now gone. How much psychic space they have is another question. Mizzy is a nomadic hustler. A Yale drop out and a drug addict. Not the perfect formula for a houseguest. But he’s family and Peter is smitten with Rebecca’s old-line Baltimore clan. Mizzy was an afterthought, literally, a birth order caboose arriving years after his three sisters were grown. As the baby, and the Mistake, he is doted upon. He is also a dangerous charmer and unknowable. Rebecca assures Peter this go around will be different. They will be different with him. “No, really,” Rebecca tells Peter about Mizzy’s visit, “we should set some limits with him.”
As the taxi creeps past the cause of the delay – a hansom cab’s horse has been killed by a passenger car – Peter’s mind weaves back and forth through a bombardment of passing thoughts. There’s the imminent party and its pretentious hostess with her imported vodka from Moscow; the expected guests who will reiterate their usual flight paths through the various urbane disciplines of art, business and academe; there’s a Styx song from the 70s making a cameo appearance in his thoughts as his mind flits from horse to cab to party to Mizzy to Matthew, his brother, dead of AIDS, and back to the conversation with Rebecca. Like the song fragments lodged in his head, Peter too would like to sail away from the holding pattern his life is in and “set a course for the virgin sea.”
This scene outlines the interior decoration scheme of “By Nightfall.” Peter’s story will be all inclusive of his thoughts. He’s an everyman here and the reader will nod his or her head in agreement that the modern mind is a thing of wonder as it sorts and files and pulls from the database in an effort to make sense of everything to avoid thinking about anything.
Pulitzer Prizes are not awarded for nothing. Cunningham surely received his in part for “The Hours” (1998) and his ability to isolate the small moments in life that speak volumes. Who hasn’t endured an inappropriate song micron – even a repeating aria – swirl around in your head like socks in a dryer, while trying to concentrate on the situation at hand?
Throughout the book, Cunningham pops in such references from art, movies, literature and music as his demo of the times we live in and the accumulated bits of knowledge we absorb. A bearded street person is a “stately, plump Buck Mulligan.” A Simon and Garfunkel-sounding lyric is noted as is a clip of Kim Novak in “Vertigo.” From James Joyce to Alfred Hitchcock, the author is giving you a story plus a brain scan. He is saying here is the contemporary mind at work. Complicated business.
The plot is the heart at work. Peter and Mizzy play out a pas de deux as Peter sorts through his resentments and expectations of Mizzy. Mizzy is alive in spite of all his ill-advised and illegal peregrinations, while Peter’s brother is not. Mizzy seems to have glided through life in some kind of E-ZPass lane with everyone picking up – or ignoring – the pieces for Mizzy. To the family, he is a needed reminder, a human madeleine, of their crazy bunch and their old creaky house, and they are quick to forget and forgive Mizzy’s hurtful struggles. Not so Peter. After he arrives home early one day to nap he ends up being a silent witness, an eavesdropper in his own bedroom, to Mizzy’s secrets. The faux walls of the loft are only visual barriers. They can’t hide everything. As Peter listens, he thinks of his daughter, on the other side of this cardboard illusion for all those years. What did that do to Bea? He learns too much about Mizzy’s life through the flimsy pressboard on this afternoon and soon the two are overly entangled, which both attracts and frightens Peter. Can he comfortably cross the borders of his family, his marriage, when tempted by Mizzy?
Readers will find a few corollaries between this book and The Hours, although there is no major awaking here. Each book introduces the main character via a party – whether it’s Clarissa fussing over flowers or Peter lamenting about being a guest. Cunningham again employs a generous use of flashbacks to strengthen subplots. The novels have similar pacing: the slow, tick tock of hours and days that unfold as the characters arrive at their destinies. They are compact books too, each under 250 pages. I wanted this one to be longer to see Peter’s motivations for such forbidden fruit more clearly.
P.E. Logan is a communications and marketing professional and a writer in New York. She worked at various adult trade publishing houses including Random House, Putnam, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for almost three decades. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and in other periodicals.