BY NIGHTFALL, by Michael Cunningham. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $25.
As he slides ever deeper into a midlife moral crisis, married Manhattan art dealer Peter Harris lies awake trying to figure out what the hell is happening to him: He seems to be falling in love with his young brother-in-law, Mizzy (short for The Mistake). An attractive, intelligent ne'er-do-well with a crystal meth problem, Mizzy has recently drifted into the Harris family's guest room, where Peter can overhear his phone calls and other private activities.
"Maybe it's not, in the end, the virtues of others that so wrenches our hearts," thinks Peter, "as it is the sense of almost unbearably poignant recognition when we see them at their most base, in their sorrow and gluttony and foolishness. . . . [We] don't care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they're good. We care about them because they're not admirable, because they're us, and because great writers have forgiven them for it."
Peter is the consummate neurotic New Yorker, living with his wife in a loft in Soho ("how '80s is that?") and quickly becomes dear to the reader for exactly the reason he cites with regard to Emma, Anna, et al. He makes mistakes. One of them will be The Mistake. And a great writer, which Michael Cunningham surely is, will forgive him for it.
Cunningham has again pulled off his trick of combining the novel of ideas with the juicy read. The characters in "By Nightfall" deceive, spy on and gossip about one another; but while all that is going on, "Nightfall" also studies the concepts of beauty and genius as they are expressed in the contemporary art world. The artists Cunningham invents for Peter to represent are just perfect: one shows paintings completely hidden in brown paper wrappings; another inscribes pornographic lyrics on bronze urns. Each seems a metaphor for an aspect of the novel itself.
"Nightfall" is seductively homoerotic, but has memorable female characters, too: Peter's assistant Uta ("a member of what seems to be a growing body of defiantly unassimilated expatriates"), his dying colleague Bette (silver crew-cut, black rimmed glasses, a serious person "who would wave only if she were drowning"), his savvy client in Connecticut, Carole Potter, who is not happy with the ball of tar and dirt recently installed in her English garden. Peter's beautiful wife, Rebecca, however, never comes completely into focus. That's because Peter himself has drifted away from her.
The verdict: "By Nightfall" is a delicious book and will make a fine movie, as did "The Hours" and "A Home at the End of the World." A straight man who suddenly falls for his wife's brother may seem like a stretch for mass appeal - but then didn't Mrs. Dalloway?