There must be a time when you have craved a combination of words that simply did not exist. You look for them — in songs, in books, in blurbs here and there, and movie dialogue. It becomes exhausting. Frustrating. Maybe even lonely. Flipping through more words, more quickly, and no one is saying the goddamn two sentence goose bump inducer that needs to be invented for this exact place in space. You’d write it if you could, but if you could write it you probably wouldn’t need it. If you could write it, you’d know what it looks like.
This is at the crux of Michael Cunningham’s so-beautiful-you-can-feel-your-own-soul-as-it- exfoliates novel By Nightfall.
Peter is in those awkward middle-aged man years, at the fork that bends left toward status quo and right to off the rails, world scorching destruction in a new and exciting way. He owns an art gallery in SoHo. He’s got a nice wife named Rebecca, equally arty, and a standing Sunday date. And they still think it’s interesting to touch each others private parts, as evidenced in an early scene in the book that has them up well past their bedtime.
Rebecca’s much younger brother Mizzy (as in “The Mistake”) comes to stay with them in their funky, no privacy loft. He’s fresh off a stint staring at rocks halfway around the world, and some druggie escapades before that. He’s thinking of a career in the arts, which makes this particular mentorship with these particular adults make sense.
The 24-year-old has the face of a young Rebecca, and a history of oozing potential, all prodigy-like. Peter’s reunion with his brother-in-law is a sudsy mess of awkward: The elder thinks his wife is in the shower, and slips in for some grab ass, only to realize he’s trespassed into dude territory. And, uh oh, damn that boy is fine. See also: Rodin.
Peter has a seven layer dish of disarray: Career-wise, he’s frustrated by the artists that show work in his gallery. He’s looking for some authenticity and beauty, and everything is a cog off for him, including a young wunderkind who designs urns, or rather a caricature of urns, that are breathtaking from a distance and up close, marred with slang for genitalia, and offensive lyrics in a wonderfully fresh and up-and-comery way. His relationship with his daughter is on the fritz. The college student-turned-hotel bartender is still gathering steam over a series of perceived adolescent slightings, which Peter remembers differently than the angry voice on the other end of the infrequent phone calls. He’s still struggling with the loss of his HIV positive older brother, who died years ago, and some unresolved feelings about their relationship. His own aging process is eating away at him. It’s in the graying of his hair, and the softening of his wife. And there is the ongoing struggle between potential and actuality. Anticipation versus fruition.
We are right there inside Peter’s head as he takes all of this discontent and channels it into a heady lust fest starring Mizzy, a young charmer and seducer. The kind of guy who walks around naked, flashes winning smiles, always presents the right response, and seems comfortable in any environment. All of a sudden Peter, aged 40 something, wonders if he is “gay for one man.”
When Peter discovers that Mizzy is still using, they become tangled in the secret they are keeping from Rebecca, the sort of thing that only fuels the tug of Peter’s bone dog.
This novel is just beautiful. There are passages where the hair on my arms stood. Peter’s head is both a comfortable and uncomfortable place to spend 200 plus pages of introspection. The scenes and the navel gazing both have that artistic sensibility of a person who knows how the subtle addition of an urn can change the flow of a space. Peter unfolds, first gradually, then manically, and the transition is totally organic. All the while, this character has a foot in reality, can actually see himself and knows the potential for world-changing destruction and yet can’t stop himself. An entire row of Oreos at the ready, followed by no Oreos left, black chalky dust caked into lips.
And, um, I’d be lying through omission if I didn’t mention that there are some super hot scenes. Not just the aforementioned husband-wife rodeo, but also places where the suggestion of what might be is hot-hot-hot.