By Nightfall is more wrenching mood piece than tightly plotted novel, though perhaps that’s to be expected from author Michael Cunningham, most famous for the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Hours. But the mood By Nightfall creates and sustains is so wonderfully depicted and all-encompassing that it washes away all other concerns. Cunningham is after a kind of free-floating melancholy, of the kind experienced by middle-aged people who react poorly to the epiphany that their lives are settling in for a long downward slope toward death. Told from the point of view of Peter, a fortysomething art-gallery owner who’s abruptly noticed how little time he has left, By Nightfall succeeds in spite of Cunningham’s usual pitfalls.
Cunningham’s use of language is rarely precise. He’s happy using an adjective that sounds good, rather than one perfectly fitting the occasion. To be fair, this can be one of his strengths—his unusual word choices often make his sentences pop, even if they don’t make literal sense—but they also lead to situations like the first page of Nightfall, where he’s describing a horse as “inscrutable” for some reason. Nightfall’s first chapter also contains one of the worst-written sex scenes in recent memory.
It gets better from there. Cunningham centers the story on a visit by Peter’s young brother-in-law Ethan, better known as Mizzy (short for “The Mistake”). Mizzy has been traveling the world and disappointing his family from adolescence on (usually via his addiction to drugs), and now he has a vague idea that he wants to work in “the arts,” and wants Peter and his wife Rebecca to explain how he can. Though Peter has his misgivings about this plan, he reluctantly allows Mizzy to enter their home, whereupon Mizzy begins using drugs again, and Peter develops a crush on him.
As a premise for a novel, a middle-aged man abruptly developing an interest in his wife’s much-younger brother shouldn’t work, but Cunningham vividly portrays the way sexual fascination can suddenly grasp a long-married person who has forgotten the pleasant feeling of pursuit. He also evokes the sense of Peter losing all sense of who he is in the face of this possibly life-shattering crush. Is he gay? Is he just gay for this one man? Does it matter? Cunningham smartly keeps these answers elusive.
Unfortunately, Mizzy is the most poorly drawn character in the book, which leaves Peter’s fascination feeling a little one-sided at times. Mizzy is a standard troubled youth who bewitches an older suitor. (Were he a girl, this book would be one, long cliché.) His drug addiction, sexual proclivities, and pain at how hard it is to live in the world feel purchased in bulk from a literary-tropes Costco, and while Cunningham does a nice inversion of the character and his motives by the end of the novel, it’s a little too late to save things. Cunningham wants readers to go back and reinterpret Mizzy’s actions while incorporating a last new bit of information, but it’s unlikely anyone will.
Still, Peter, Rebecca, and the other people in their lives are well-drawn versions of a certain type of person, one obsessed with art, culture, beauty, and status, now adrift in an unmoored economy. And the novel’s sense of melancholy, which extends right to its terrific final line, is palpable. It’s a book that’s perfect for readers who are awake at 3 a.m. and unsure when the sun will rise again.