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Michael Cunningham (#110 of 4)

Fools for Beauty Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall

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Fools for Beauty: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
Fools for Beauty: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall

In Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, middle age becomes a second adolescence, ripe with the same confused restlessness, heightened desire, and crushing heartbreak that is, generally speaking, the special province of sensitive, love-struck teenagers. Imagine now that passionate strain of teenage melancholia conflated with and compounded by the familiar cruelties of middle age: the softening belly and disappearing ass, hair turning the color of ashes, and the unsettling ease with which a long marriage becomes reduced to a predictable palette of “atmospheres and weathers”—fights forecasted by palpable shifts in tone or mood, sexual overtures communicated through uninspired, rote gestures.

This is where Peter Harris, the successful Manhattan gallery owner at the center of Cunningham’s novel, finds himself: trapped in a fog of sensible middle age ennui, yet entirely capable of being transfixed by beauty with an ardor to rival any 15 year old. The soft belly and gray hairs and comfortable but dull marriage—these are the peripheral cruelties of middle age that hover at the edge of his discontent. Peter has graduated into midlife with all outward signs of maturity and respectability intact (the spacious SoHo loft, the—presumably—rock-solid marriage, the circle of urbane friends), but buried under the black suit and firm handshake, there’s a part of him that’s not quite ready to “reconfirm his allegiance to the realm of the sensible.” There’s part of him, rarely manifested in everyday life, that fantasizes of “that other, darker world—Blake’s London, Courbet’s Paris; raucous, unsanitary places where good behavior was the province of decent, ordinary people who produced no works of genius.”