While searching the library shelves for a copy of The Hours, which I was reminded of lately and which I adore but have not read in years, I found instead this novel by Michael Cunningham. By Nightfall is a slim novel that follows a few short weeks in the life of Peter Harris, a New York art dealer, as he slumps from a somewhat contented existence into a mid-life crisis.
Cunningham’s usual poetic prose — long, flowing, stream-of-consciousness sentences and sudden, unexpected mini-monologues about life’s big issues — really makes Peter seem like a much more full-fledged character than one might expect from such a short novel, something a less competent author might not be able to do as well as quickly.
Peter Harris spends almost the entire novel inside his own head examining, in great detail, every aspect of his life. What Peter finds through this examination is that even though he is living, by most standards, a good life (New York City apartment, long-term marriage, modest professional and financial success), he suddenly can only find flaws and regrets. His moods start to swing wildly from one extreme to the other: in one moment he is thankful for his long marriage to Rebecca, at other times he seems vaguely saddened by it; he is desperate for professional success in some moments and then disgusted by the business of the art world the next. Peter, in his heart, is uncertain if he is a good person; uncertain whether he is happy; and uncertain that he is living the right life. And Peter has begun to realize that he will eventually die.
Adding to Peter’s unsteady emotional state is the arrival of his wife’s drug addicted and ne’er-do-well younger brother, Ethan. Ethan’s arrival affects Peter is wild ways: he is at times insanely jealous of the young man’s youth and potential, sometimes aroused by how much Ethan reminds him of his wife when she was young, and simultaneously sickened by his weakness to his addictions.
So Peter begins to let his melancholy and dissatisfaction start to take hold and he is more and more tempted to throw out some (or perhaps all) of his life as it is in order to reach for something else, although what the something might be, he is not exactly certain.
Cunningham creates a character with such clarity that his internal struggles, while (perhaps) minor to an outsider, are very real to Peter and therefore become very real to the reader. Cunningham is able to show us the terrible vulnerability this man feels during his mid-life crisis, that his place in the art world is more than cliques and selfishness but a real, desperate longing to know that he has done the right things with his life. Even if we are urging Peter down the safer path, the author’s magical storytelling makes it easy for us sympathize with his need to do something or create something or mean something more to the people around him before old age claims him.