By Nightfall, which I’ve written about before and was sad to finish last night, is in many ways hugely different than Gilead. For one, it’s set in present-day Manhattan, and follows the travails of a rather well-off married couple, he an art dealer, she a magazine editor. So yes, a far cry from the spiritual musings of last week.
But in other ways, the books are surprisingly complementary. In Gilead, an older man questions the motives of his best friend’s younger son (himself middle-aged) who reappears in town after a long absence. In By Nightfall, the story picks up when Mizzy (short for “The Mistake”), younger brother of protagonist Peter Harris’ wife Rebecca, appears in the city, having “recovered” from a problem with addiction and looking for a job “in the arts.” Like the narrator of Gilead, Peter is distrustful of (and yet also enamored of) Mizzy. He simultaneously wants to improve him and be rid of him, and perhaps most importantly, he’s concerned—obsessed, even—with what those conflicting emotions mean. (To clarify, the books are hugely different in many other ways, not least of which is Peter’s mild attraction to Mizzy).
Though I loved By Nightfall on several levels—writing, setting, dialogue—the book’s true strength is its characters, who seem so effortlessly real that I keep expecting to run into one of them on the 4 train. Peter and Rebecca as the comfortable married couple, Mizzy as the wayward and frivolous 20-something, Bea (the Harris’ daughter) as the malcontent young female, whose rebellion takes the form of leaving her parents’ SoHo loft for a job in a Boston hotel bar. (Again, the connection with Gilead: What is one to make of their daughter fleeing New York for a mundane existence hundreds of miles away. And how does said flight reflect on one’s attempts at parenting?)It’s hard to decide what By Nightfall is the best portrait of: addiction, marriage, art, New York? All of the above, really. And that’s all I’ll say, both because I don’t want to give away any of the story, but also because there’s a lot of devil in these details. By Nightfall has a plot, of course, a good one at that, but the book is more than anything compelling because it seems real. Not Jersey Shore “real,” not even Intervention real. Real like when you surreptitiously eavesdrop on someone’s conversation. Real like watching a father and son fight at the supermarket. Real like going home. That is, if your home was a loft in SoHo.
I have to admit I’m mildly biased towards books set in New York. Something about reading someone else’s impression of things I know of, or even pass every day. Considering By Nightfall has a page devoted almost entirely to an incredibly spot-on description of Bushwick (where I live), you might say it wouldn’t have been possible for me to dislike this novel, but the general consensus among critics suggests I’m not alone. By Nightfall is a fun, short read that covers distinctly heavier topics, and has a little something for everyone. It is simultaneously funny, sad, suspenseful and even erotic. All in a slim 250 pages. Highly recommended.
TITLE: By Nightfall
AUTHOR: Michael Cunningham
PAGES: 238 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: The Hours, Flesh and Blood
SORTA LIKE: Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him meets Freedom
FIRST LINE: “The Mistake is coming to stay for awhile.”