Time and Tide
BY Ari Karpel
October 13 2010 4:00 AM ET
Michael Cunningham’s home in Provincetown, Mass., hews to the classic Cape Cod style. The shingles of his modest two-story condo along the water on the far east end of town are graying from the salty sea air. The house that The Hours built—or at least bought (“It cost almost exactly what [movie producer] Scott Rudin paid me for The Hours,” Cunningham casually reveals)—has the kind of sparkling bay views and voluptuous breezes that inspire you to take a deep breath and sink into vacation relaxation.
Which is why the author’s studio is the room without the view. “I need to detach from that,” he says, gesturing at the bay from the couch of his Ralph Lauren–perfect living room–cum–kitchen on an afternoon in early September. “I need to really focus and not be sitting there at 10 in the morning thinking, God, why aren’t I walking on the beach? Why am I sitting here like some latter-day Emily Dickinson, with life passing me by?”
Self-pitying drama and geography—Dickinson lived in landlocked Amherst, Mass.—aside, Cunningham isn’t likely to become much like the reclusive 19th-century poet, whose work was unappreciated until after her death. Not only did The Hours buy Cunningham and his partner, Ken Corbett, a summer house (they spend the rest of the year in New York City), the 1998 book became a 2002 movie starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, which won Kidman an Oscar for Best Actress. The novel also earned Cunningham perhaps the most coveted award of all, the Pulitzer Prize.
The Hours had another, less tangible effect: It elevated the gay male cultural conversation. For a time, talk of Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway—the inspiration for Cunningham’s a-day-in-three-lives novel—supplanted lots of chatter about Titanic and Teletubbies (hey, it was 1998). It revealed a collective yearning and latent capacity for literary discussion among gay people. “In my wildest dreams, I hope that’s true,” Cunningham says.
Now the dean of the gay literati has turned his gaze to the contemporary art world. Cunningham’s new book, By Nightfall, is tidier and less lofty than The Hours and his Walt Whitman–inspired 2005 follow-up, Specimen Days. Nevertheless it delivers sharp cultural and emotional insights. The novel follows Peter, a New York City gallery owner who launches into a midlife reexamination of his marriage (to a woman), his parenting (to an estranged college-age daughter), and his work (hawking less-than-substantial contemporary art to wealthy socialites) after a visit from his much younger brother-in-law.