Book Review: By Nightfall Failed to Make Me Sympathize with Middle-Aged White Dudes

By NightfallAuthor: Michael Cunningham

Peter and Rebecca Harris are well-to-do New Yorkers living in SoHo, working in the arts (he owns a gallery, she is an editor), schmoozing with potential clients and promising artists. Their only problems seem to stem from their wayward daughter, Bea, and the general malaise that often accompanies middle age. Until Mizzy arrives.

Mizzy—short for “the mistake”—is Rebecca’s beautiful, troubled younger brother. With a history of drug problems and a lack of direction, Mizzy is “one of those smart, drifty young people who, after certain deliberations, decides he wants to do Something in the Arts but won’t, possibly can’t, think in terms of an actual job.” He arrives after a yearlong stint in Japan, under the guise of settling down and getting career guidance from Peter and Rebecca.

Soon after his arrival, Peter discovers Mizzy is using drugs again. Peter’s complicity in hiding this from his wife brings the two men closer and prompts Peter to question everything about his life: his career, marriage, relationship with his daughter, even his sexuality.

On the surface, it feels like well-worn territory – the midlife crisis, the unexpected houseguest who throws life into disarray. But Michael Cunningham manages to lift the story above cliché with his strong characterization and knack for dialogue. He establishes the rhythms of Peter and Rebecca’s marriage, and the connections that continue to bind them together, quickly and effectively. They are a believable couple.

The story is told entirely from Peter’s perspective. You are privy to his internal dialogue – his reflections on his brother, who died from AIDS long ago; his failures as a father; the fading beauty of his wife. Cunningham is so successful at getting you inside Peter’s head that the denouement feels as inevitable as it does painful. You know that feeling of apprehension you get when you know what you’re doing is not going to end well, but it’s too late to stop it? You get that here.

I have mixed feelings about this book; as a longtime Cunningham fan, and on a technical level, I appreciated it. But I didn’t really like it. It’s possible I approached it with too high expectations. But I think it’s more because it’s hard to feel sorry for a well-off, comfortably married, happily employed man suffering from ennui. Peter comes off annoying and self-indulgent (probably like most people in the midst of a midlife crisis). But I can see how there is something universal about that. We will all, at one point, become bored with our lives and flirt a bit with disaster.

While Peter and Rebecca are fully fleshed out characters, Mizzy is underdeveloped. He exists purely as a foil for Peter and Rebecca and their marriage. We never get to know him or learn what he’s thinking. He is a catalyst, not a character.

Cunningham is particularly adept at creating an atmosphere. By Nightfall is imbued with a pervasive melancholy that is hard to shake. Peter’s melancholy made me melancholy. It is generally a good thing when a book generates strong feelings, but I it bothered me a bit in this case, though I can’t put my finger on why. I will say this about the book, though—it stayed with me, long after I finished it.

Recommendation: Skip it, unless you’re a diehard Cunningham fan.