BY NIGHTFALL by Michael Cunningham

Book Quote:

“What do you do when you’re no longer the hero of your own story? You shut down for the night and go home to your wife, right? You have a martini, order dinner. You read or watch television. You are Brueghel’s tiny Icarus, drowning unnoticed in a corner of a vast canvas on which men till fields and tend sheep.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (OCT 2, 2010)

Peter Harris is used to life dealing him very few surprises. He’s got a steady job as owner of a fairly profitable art gallery in New York City and his marriage to Rebecca Harris, the editor of an arts and culture magazine, is fulfilling enough. His daughter Bea, who has quit school at Tufts to become a bartender instead, hates him for no reason that Peter can immediately discern.

Into this fairly steady life, walks in Mizzy—short for “Mistake.” Mizzy is Rebecca’s much younger brother (he is only a few years older than Bea) who is a recovering drug addict and plans on staying with the Harrises until he can figure out his future life plans. He wants to do “something in the arts” but is unsure exactly what.

As the book progresses, we learn that Peter has suffered an earlier tragedy when his older brother Matthew and his partner, Dan, died young presumably from AIDS. Mizzy has that same ethereal beauty that Matthew once had and Peter views Mizzy’s visit as a chance to get things right between him and this stand-in for his long-lost brother.

Unfortunately though Mizzy is no angel. Peter comes across him doing drugs again and now he must decide whether to report this to Rebecca or shelter the young man from consequences that are sure to be unpleasant.

As Peter struggles with this decision and his feelings for Mizzy, the author, Michael Cunningham, punctuates the narrative with wonderful flashbacks to Peter’s teen years and to his early encounters with Rebecca’s extended family. The Pulitzer-winning author beautifully describes how Peter comes to believe that he is much inferior to the handsome and beautiful Matthew. As time wears on, Peter is convinced of one thing: He is in love with beauty as a concept and will always strive to find it everywhere. It explains his career choice, his relationship to Rebecca’s family and even to Mizzy.

By Nightfall is a wonderful exploration of the art life in New York—the people who sell and buy it. Cunningham’s descriptions of a Connecticut arts patron and the many complicated dealings that Peter has to conduct to get art sold, are extremely insightful and well done. At one point, when Peter wonders how present day artists can create true art by living in the most boring of suburbs, instead of say in Paris or Rome, you can truly find yourself relating. As Cunningham shows through this exercise, even the most highbrow of fine art is a business and its sale just a business transaction in the end.

By Nightfall also turns out to be an astute look at the 20-something generation as represented by Mizzy. Even if his story ends in a note of cynicism, one’s heart goes out to him as he stands confused struggling with the incredible expectations set on his shoulders and his choices about where to steer his life in general. “I feel like I’m just starting to see the world just go along without me. And, you know, why shouldn’t it? But I don’t have. Any idea about what to do,” Mizzy says, “I’ve thought for so long that if I just said no to all the, you know, obviously bad ideas, like law school, that the good idea would just sort of come along. And I begin to see that this is how sad old failures get their start.” But as Cunningham shows, Mizzy is no wide-eyed innocent either. He knows how to work the system—in this case his family—and achieve the immediate results he’s looking for.

There are many flashes of brilliance and inspired writing in the novel—proof that its writer richly deserves his many literary awards. Cunningham’s take on parenting—“Children “don’t share blame. Parents are the mystified criminals, blinking in the docks, making it all the worse for themselves with every word they utter.”—and the arts, for example, are just superb.

In the end though, these are just flashes and they don’t make for a compelling read overall. By Nightfall is a good book but not a great one. It suffers from a case of over-analysis—too much of Peter’s time is spent navel-gazing. At various times, he worries if his relationship to Mizzy is a substitute for one with his dead brother Matthew or his daughter, Bea. It is sad that after all that, he fails to see the most obvious of explanations for the way the relationship finally unfolds.

Eventually there is the “finality of nothing happening.” But maybe that’s precisely the point. As Cunningham writes, Peter ultimately realizes he is “Brueghel’s tiny Icarus, drowning unnoticed in a corner of a vast canvas on which men till fields and tend sheep.” In other words, if this book is to mirror Peter’s life, there can be no constant high-voltage theatrics. Sure life is studded with occasional ups and downs, but for the most part, it’s just a steady plod.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 118 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; (September 28, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Michael Cunningham
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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October 2, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, NE & New York, New York City, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

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