An apparition spotted in Central Park has a man marveling at the place of magic in our lives. Or is it all just a trick of the light?
November 2004: Middle-aged Barrett, bright but aimless, has just been dumped and has hit the skids professionally. He’s moved into a Brooklyn apartment with his songwriter brother, Tyler, who hides a cocaine addiction and fumes at Dubya-era politics while caring for his fiancee, Beth, in rapid decline from Stage 4 cancer. Amid all this, Barrett is struck by a vision of “pale aqua light” in the night sky that suggests something bigger and more transcendent. Fast-forward a year: Beth’s in remission, Barrett is settled, and Tyler’s career is looking up. This study of fickle fate from Cunningham (By Nightfall, 2010, etc.) has its share of virtues. Since his debut, A Home at the End of the World (1990), he’s masterfully characterized ad hoc families, and he’s superb at highlighting the ways that small gestures (a finger pressed to a lover’s lips; a shift in the way two people sit together) reveal deeper emotional currents. Here, he deftly allows Barrett’s vision its power of wonderment while keeping the story firmly realistic. (References to fairy tales, magic and miracles are sparingly but strategically deployed.) Still, none of this keeps the novel from being somewhat slight, particularly in comparison to his debut and The Hours (1998): Life changes, we’re all a little open to spiritual suggestion, and why is this surprising? Barrett begins attending church, but Cunningham treats this more as a dash of characterization than an exploration of faith. A drama involving Tyler energizes the closing pages but feels distant from the book’s central concerns.
A stellar writer working on a small canvas; Cunningham has done greater work.