By Nightfall
Michael Cunningham
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Buy *By Nightfall* by Michael Cunningham online

By Nightfall
Michael Cunningham
256 pages
August 2011
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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At forty-four, Manhattan art-dealer Peter Harris lives in a comfortable downtown loft with his lovely wife, Rebecca. For the most part, their marriage has been loving and companionable, although lately there’s been a bit of bickering. While there's not much sex, Peter readily admits that he's still in love with his wife's avid mind and her “wised-up tenderness.” When Rebecca tells him that her younger brother, Ethan (Mizzy), is coming to stay, Peter - always loyal and loving - is determined to do whatever he can to give the boy “a bit of stability.”

A smart but listless young man, Mizzy has decided he wants to do “something in the arts.” The feckless family wild child, Mizzy has ratcheted up a long history of drug abuse, even though he's been telling his family that he's been clean for almost a year. He's also self-centered and deceitful, which makes willful Rebecca even more determined to “set some limits” on him.

The die is cast, the young man’s arrival bringing out a cloud of Peter's unfamiliar memories - of growing up in Milwaukee with his beloved brother, Matthew, and of Matthew's subsequent death from AIDS. Peter’s middle-aged years seem to have obscured his thoughts and observations of the world around him. He now spends most nights swilling down a vodka at 3am, impatiently waiting for his sleeping pill to kick in.

Peter’s personal predicaments, however, dissolve when he spies Mizzy in the shower, this Rodin boy-man almost “satyr like” and shamelessly unembarrassed by his nakedness. Like Gustav von Aschenbach, wild, beautiful Mizzy becomes Peter’s ideal Tadzio, a bronzed sculpture, so like the works of art he exhibits in his trendy Manhattan gallery. At night in bed, with Rebecca sleeping by his side, Peter is truly mortified that he's obsessively listening to the rise and fall of Mizzy’s voice through the cardboard-thin walls of his loft.

Cunningham brings alive Peter's new and unbridled passions for Mizzy in bold, vivid literary brushstrokes. We also spend a day with Peter in his rarified world as he lunches with Bette, another mid-range art dealer, “a queen kidnapped by age and illness"; has a business meeting with his new client Rupert Groff, a pale, pudgy artist in “a rock star sort of way”; and later as he takes Mizzy to Connecticut to visit demanding and insufferably rich Carole Potter, a charming, self-deprecating buyer of "serious art."

The silent streets of New York form the symbolic backdrop to Peter’s unexpected sexual crisis. Lonely, he walks them by night calling his daughter, Bea, who lives in Boston, regretting the fact that he’s not close to the thin, pale girl with no boyfriends and no easily distinguishable passions. Meanwhile, Rebecca's efforts to produce a sanctuary for her little lost brother threaten to be undone by a besotted husband. Ever faithful to the family cause, the young prince is really just a cheap hustler, happy enough to run scams out of "the temple" that Rebecca has built around him.

An intense exploration of artistic passion, there’s an inevitable edge to everyone in Cunningham's tale. Mizzy eventually lets his waywardness get the better of him as he slowly transforms into a work of art, at least in Peter's eyes. Slow waves of sorrow and anger and silent yearnings wash over Rebecca. At the center stands Peter, frustrated as he posits his dark secrets and passions, “the endless snarls of loveliness and of murder," in this beautiful, accomplished and psychologically rich work of contemporary literary fiction.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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