AH, MIDDLE AGE. Ye despised state. So sadly and yet accurately coupled with such terms as spread, crazy and despair. Middle-age is the arena of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall, which follows a long-married, successful NYC art gallerist, Peter Harris, through a handful of days as he considers exploding his life for the sake of his wife Rebecca’s much younger brother. An “oops” child and a loose cannon (spiritual quests, drug problems), Ethan, known as Mizzy, arrives as a debris-rich injection into the well-run machine of a sophisticated couple’s intricate, busy life. First introduced as a family problem, the boy quickly becomes a very different type of problem for Peter — a troubling attraction.
While many have commented upon the Death in Venice resemblances — the echoes of which Cunningham’s well-read, wryly self-deprecating protagonist is highly aware — another specter hovers over the novel, one which I found far more resonant: the quintessence of middle-aged Urban Man, Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom. On the very first page, we’re alerted to the possibility of Ulyssean overtones with the mention of “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” in the stream of Peter’s consciousness — a psyche as packed with literary and artistic references as a New York City subway car full of rush-hour commuters.
Like Joyce’s protagonist, Peter Harris is a man caught midstream — not lost in dark woods, but a seasoned traveler tied into life by a million active strands. Imagine a sophisticated Bloom, a successful Bloom, going about his day, not in 1906 Dublin, but in contemporary New York. In the course of his daily rounds, Peter Harris, like Bloom, offers up startlingly apt insights into the nuances of his beloved city and life in middle age, its particular qualities, memories revisited, states and ambivalences. Like his Irish predecessor, Peter exists in his private musings far more than in any particular plotted action.
With the prospect of Mizzy, Peter finds himself confronting a largely unexamined yearning, a hidden desire which boils over in the form of “middle aged crazy.” For who wants to be Bloom when one can be Stephen Dedalus, and forge the uncreated conscience of one’s race? As art gallerist and culturatus, Peter’s secret dream is to discover an artist who will explode the world — in other words, an already-tamed dream of serving as midwife to ecstasy. Not creator, but midwife. A dream whose ambition itself is already middle-aged, compromised, diminished.
But life has a curve in store for him. The possibility of a grand romance with a wholly unsuitable boy presents Peter with the dangerous opportunity to embody the thing itself — ecstasy, transcendent desire, the fulfillment of which would tear apart everything he has built, his whole carefully orchestrated, carefully balanced mid-life world, in a single moment. The urge to leap is irresistible.
The novel’s essential conflict, then, is the tug of war between a middle-aged man’s generous accommodation to the ordinariness of the world, his accreted Bloomian sense that life’s ...