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Michael Cunningham's "By Nightfall," reviewed by Ron Charles

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The Washington Post's fiction critic lets fly another wacky video review with a rundown of author Michael Cunningham's latest offering.

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But what gives the novel its considerable frisson is the intrusion of Peter's impossibly seductive, much younger brother-in-law. Nicknamed Mizzy ("The Mistake"), Ethan is a bisexual drug addict who's sucked up his family's money and affection for years. He wants to crash with his sister and Peter while he figures out what he'd like to do next -- maybe "Something in the Arts." Till then, he'll just tiptoe around the apartment in full-frontal Grecian splendor and masturbate in his room. Peter reacts with politely repressed disdain, but the young man's beauty quickly overwhelms him and soon he's fantasizing about touching Mizzy's "pallid, fine-boned prettiness," his "slumbering perfection. . . . It had seemed to him that angels might look like this."

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How gay is it?

That's Peter's question, but ours, too, as the novel becomes increasingly flamboyant, giving itself over to a lush internal melodrama, "the painful gorgeousness of caring that much." Of course, Peter is self-aware enough to acknowledge the homosexual component of his attraction, but he also sees his brother-in-law, this "beautiful princeling," as a long-lost work of art, the perfect object that demolishes everything and remakes his world.

This is not an easy argument to make with a straight -- or gay -- face. There's a touch of "I buy Playgirl for the articles" here, and Cunningham pushes hard on celebrating a kind of beauty that transcends mere sexual desire. Even without a death in Venice, it gets a bit overwrought, though only in ways that Cunningham anticipates and acknowledges -- all "very nineteenth century," as a discreet colleague observes. While the drama between Peter and his feckless brother-in-law is arresting, it can't really rise to tragedy or romance or even scandal because Peter is too self-conscious of the situation's competing meanings: psychological, aesthetic and farcical. "He's a poor, funny little man, isn't he?" he says of himself toward the end, but most of us poor, funny little people don't have Peter's capacity to simultaneously critique and star in our own psychosexual crises.

If the novel's final revelation seems a bit bland, it's more than compensated for by the insight and humor that come before. Admittedly, "By Nightfall" doesn't have the emotional breadth of "The Hours," but it's a cerebral, quirky reflection on the allure of phantom ideals and even, ultimately, on what a traditional marriage needs to survive.

Charles is The Post's fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/RonCharles.


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