Michael Cunningham and a new generation of writers transcend 'gay literature'

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010

NEW YORK -- He sneaks a cigarette in the stairwell, through an emergency exit whose alarm does not sound. He sits on the eighth step, places a porcelain ashtray to the side of his bare feet and lights an American Spirit. He watches a curl of smoke creep toward the chicken-wired skylight in the roof of his Chelsea condo building.

If he were writing this passage, he'd start the next sentence with "Here is," his favorite device for centering the reader after a tumble of description. As in: Here is the novelist Michael Cunningham, on a Monday, in shades of gray -- gray of hair, gray of shirt, grayed in by concrete and cigarette ash, and gray of perspective on what, if anything, it means to be a gay novelist who's written a fairly gay book at a very gay time.

The gay thing is incidental, he says. This new novel, his sixth, is really about middle age (he's 57) and the over-ripening of long-term relationships (he smokes here out of respect for Kenny, his boyfriend of 20-plus years) and the yearning for true beauty in a world that's short on it.

Beauty, in "By Nightfall," dogs the protagonist, a middle-aged straight man named Peter Harris who is ambushed by a confounding lust for his wife's much-younger brother, a 23-year-old wanderer radiating a newness and virility that Peter has lost over time. The awakening of this homosexuality is contemplated with a restraint, maturity and matter-of-factness that seems absent from the media and the public sphere, where the military can't easily shake Victorian protocol, where the states form a patchwork quilt of conflicting same-sex marriage laws, where gay teens make headlines when they're beaten or suicidal.

The country as a whole still can't deal with the gay thing. Not so in the pages of Cunningham.

"Peter is very much like my straight friends -- he's not freaked out about it," says Cunningham, now back inside his condo, the skyscrapers of downtown flickering in the twilight. His feet are on the coffee table, near a decapitated stone statuette of the Virgin Mary and books of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman.

"Most of the straight guys I know have had sex with a guy at some point or another -- in college, most likely," he says. "But, yeah, Peter's attitude to his own sexuality is not some wishful attempt on my part to be modern. It's simply what I see around me."

He pauses long enough for a motorcycle engine to trail a greasy roar up Sixth Avenue, nine stories below.

"And you have to hope that's some kind of progress."

Cunningham himself has stood for some kind of progress in modern American literature: a novelist who is gay, who writes for a wide and mainstream audience, who populates his stories with characters who aren't defined by their straightness or gayness but rather by their grappling with sophisticated problems. In 1990's "A Home at the End of the World," a gay male, a straight male and a straight female entangle themselves in a love triangle, but the novel is a vision of family, not a stoking of scandal. A textured, lovingly drawn lesbian couple is the axis of "The Hours," his blockbuster legacy-maker from 1998, but that wasn't the point. The point was: How do you get flowers into a vase when your brain is addled by the burden of existence?

The previous generation of gay writers has bequeathed a freedom to write about being gay in an unfussy, elevated way without worrying about advancing an agenda, says Cunningham contemporary Tony Kushner, who cites Edmund White and Larry Kramer as pioneers in literature.

"Every time a disenfranchised group seizes hold of a new form, there's a generation that has to struggle with it, that has to build the foundation and the house, and then the next generation moves into the house," says Kushner, who is currently reviving his AIDS-era epic "Angels in America" 30 blocks uptown. "With 'By Nightfall,' there's no proving that needs to be done, though sometimes I think, 'Oh God, I can't believe we're still struggling over these prehistoric things in 2010.' In the 1992 GOP convention you had Pat Buchanan's speech about ideological cross-dressing, and you still have people like Carl Paladino."

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