By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($25.00, 238 pp.)
Their twenty year marriage, their loft in SoHo, his gallery in Chelsea, her money starved arts and culture magazine, their sullen Tufts drop-out bartender daughter, his childhood in Milwaukee blended with hers in an old Virginia manse, their accomplished middle-age marital sex, his parenthetical observations including subtle references to literature and art – this is the backdrop to Peter and Rebecca Harris’s story in Michael Cunningham’s new novel “By Nightfall.”
It might appear to be just another one of those New York City tales of the domestic angst of a downtown couple who live the life that so many go to the City in hopes of finding, but Cunningham is such a damn fine writer that the story moves along in a unique blend of conversation, observation, and drama.
Peter tells the story, although he is such a close observer that after twenty years of marriage, he knows what Rebecca is thinking before she does, and so his narrative recounts events from both of their points of view. They go to parties where he peruses the host’s art and she peruses the host. They visit her family where she competes with two sisters and laments her mother’s gradual fade from reality while he immerses himself in her family’s “decrepit grandeur” so unlike that of his sober Milwaukee bungalow home. Every day they return home after work and recap their activities over ritual vodka martinis, take out dinner, and conversation in bed…followed by occasional sex. Every night Peter’s insomnia wakes him at 4:01 for a shot of Stoli and his blue Klonopin.
Tolstoy notwithstanding, happy families are not really all alike; and of course, the happy Harris family is not so happy at all. Peter worshipped his older brother who died young of AIDS. It was Matthew who helped him break free of Milwaukee and find his calling in the art world of New York. Rebecca’s quite younger brother Ethan (nicknamed “Mizzy” for the “mistake” of his birth twenty years after those of his sisters) is a physical beauty who now in his early twenties has gone through drugs, rehab, hetero- and homo-sexual partners, and a Japanese temple pilgrimage before finally coming to live with her and Peter while he finds “something in the arts” to earn a living. Mizzy has enough beauty, charm, and indifference to custom to try anything.
Finding a Name Artist
As Mizzy arrives to live in their loft and their lives, things are not going so well for Peter’s gallery or for Rebecca’s magazine. Out of money, she is resigned to selling the magazine to some wealthy art wannabe in Billings. Peter’s gallery, on the other hand, at least pays the bills; but he constantly struggles with a desire to support young artists in hopes they will blossom into genius and the need to land a big name, big bucks artist to lift his modest gallery from the Chelsea look-alikes to the Boones and Gagosians. He introspectively dreads settling “into a career of determined semidefeat, a champion of the overlooked and almost-but-not-quite.”
When Peter wakes one morning to find Mizzy naked casually drinking milk from the bottle, he is struck by his beauty and his resemblance to Rebecca in her thin, elegant youth. His first response is too marvel at Mizzy’s resemblance to a Rodin bronze he has just seen at the Met – “the slender, effortless, muscularity of youth, the extravagant nonchalance of it; the sense that beauty is in fact the natural human condition, and not the rarest of mutations.” His second is an erotic one, which quickly leads him to uncomfortably consider his own sexual ambiguity. Is he gay in his very DNA as his beloved brother Matthew was?
Cunningham deftly weaves Peter’s quest for a great artist for his gallery into his growing attraction to Mizzy. He wants to find genius, “to find a balance between sentiment and irony, between beauty and rigor, and in so doing open a crack in the substance of the world through which mortal truth might shine.” In both Mizzy and great art he sees a chance for “rescue from solitude and subjectivity; the sense of company in history and the greater world; the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened.”
Peter’s quest, however, is hardly ethereal. He eavesdrops on Mizzy masturbating at night and even quietly enters his guest room to watch him sleep. He discovers that Mizzy is again using drugs and making his buys at their loft, but he is too infatuated to tell Rebecca or throw him out.
The Moment of Choice
He takes Mizzy with him by train to the Greenwich, Connecticut home of a very wealthy client – not only to show him how working in the art world entails a lot of ass-kissing of the rich, but also to spend the private hours alone with him traveling up and back. In one of these private moments, they kiss, and Peter loses all bearings when Mizzy professes a long held love for him.
As the novel comes to a close, Peter is so enraptured and convinced that Mizzy wants to run away with him, he slips out of the gallery to meet him for lunch knowing full well that if they run off there will be a sad ending of pain and unhappiness. “Yes. God help him, he will in all likelihood say yes. With not even the ghost of an illusion about how it will turn out in the end. He’s ready, with the merest encouragement, to destroy his life, and no one, not one single person he knows, will sympathize.”
But Mizzy’s life is more complicated and chilling than just seducing Peter. He fears his sisters’ inevitable willingness to send him back to rehab if they find out he is using, so he meets with Peter not to rush off with him to some Greek island, but to tell him goodbye and warn him that if Peter tells Rebecca that he is using again, he will tell her about the kiss. And so they part, Mizzy off to San Francisco and Peter back to Rebecca, his marriage, his unhappy daughter, and his second-tier artists.
The 4 AM Stoli shot
He takes his 4 AM Stoli shot and blue pill and walks through the streets of downtown: “the unreconstructed remnants of nineteenth century sweatshops and tenements, the streets potholed and buckling while right over there, around a corner, is a Chanel boutique. We go shopping amid the rubble, like the world’s richest, best-dressed refugees.” Peter knows what and who he is: “he lives in a goddamned loft in SoHo (how eighties is that?), he has employees, and up ahead, mere blocks away, there are gaggles of young headbangers who live in walk-ups, who are buying beer with their actual last dimes.”
Twenty years of marriage to Rebecca is not nothing. They have a good life, a good place to live, a good daughter who struggles as the young often do, work that satisfies at least some of their artistic interests, a good sex life, and comfortable daily rituals which they share and enjoy. Peter goes back to the loft to Rebecca who “is herself, exactly that: rapt and ravaged-looking, incomparable, singular…here is Peter’s art then. Here is a woman who keeps changing and changing, impossible to cast in metal because she’s already not who she was when he walked through the door, not who she’ll be ten minutes from now. Maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe all of Peter’s chances are not yet squandered.”
And so, Cunningham leaves us with some uncertainty but also some hope for Peter and Rebecca. His story is not on the grand scale of Antony and Cleopatra, or Gatsby, or Anna Karenina, or even Jonathan Franzen’s best. It is not one of blind passion and tragedy. Peter knows that “no one will do him in bronze. He, like all the multitudes who are not remembered, is waiting politely for a train that in all likelihood is never going to come.” But Cunningham leaves the door open. Perhaps some day that great artist will show in Peter’s gallery, Mizzy will find happiness, their daughter will blossom, and the clouds will part just a little.