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Michael Cunningham: A Home at the End of the World

There is a Ph. D. waiting to be written on the themes of late 20th century/early 21st century American fiction. Two of them are combined in this book. The first is the Growing-Up-Slightly-Weird-in-Middle-America-Coming-to-the-Big-City-Doing-My-Shit-And-Then-Heading-Out-to-the-Real-but-Still-Weird-World-in- (Pick-Your-State) book. The second is the My-Gay-Lover-Died-Of-AIDS-But-Oh-By-the-Way-I-Have-Nothing-Against-Girls book. Cunningham writes a pretty good book and picked up loads of accolades for this one. However I just could not be moved by it. Jonathan (one of the heroes/narrators)’s sad father’s sad death and the not quite so sad death of Jonathan’s gay lover did nothing for me, not least because I have seen it before and it is clear that, despite the young child, Cunningham is not interested in children except as literary ciphers.

The story concerns two childhood friends, Jonathan and Bobby. After the death of his father, Bobby comes to live with Jonathan’s family (Jonathan’s father owns an independent cinema in Cleveland.) They have a bit of homosexual fooling around but the rest of their growing up is sex-free. Jonathan eventually goes off to college and then New York, leaving Bobby to become a baker, influenced by Alice, Jonathan’s mother. After college, Jonathan becomes the food correspondent for a Village Voice-like publication and is living with Clare, a heiress whose biological clock is ticking. They plan on Jonathan becoming the father of her child but their relationship is otherwise platonic, Jonathan having his twice weekly thrill with would-be actor and actual barman Erich. Jonathan and Bobby have had little contact in recent times but when the bakery business fails, Bobby comes to New York. He and Clare, inevitably, fall for each other and Jonathan gets jealous and disappears. Eventually, they all get together, buy a house in upstate New York (near Woodstock which, as they discover, is not the site of the music festival of that name) and open a trendy restaurant, caring for Bobby and Clare’s child and Erich as he dies of AIDS.

There is, of course, more to it than that, not least Jonathan’s parents, who play a significant role for both Jonathan and Bobby, as well as the problems of growing up gay in Cleveland and the struggle of all the characters to find their place in the world. Jonathan’s agonising on this subject is very well handled and his poor sad father’s reminiscing about it is also good but, over all, though this book is interesting it didn’t move me as much as it moved some people.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux