How Michael Cunningham Writes About the Pains, Pleasures, and Psychedelia of Childhood

Michael Cunningham’s short story “White Angel” (The New Yorker; paywalled) is a vibrant masterpiece in miniature about two young brothers in suburban Cleveland pursuing the promises and pleasures of the sixties. Told through the eyes of 9-year-old Robert, the story travels an elegant curve – from the wonder, joy, and power imbalance of the brothers’ collusion, to a crashing and tragic denouement – that is at once funny, insightful, and utterly heartbreaking. “White Angel” was originally published in The New Yorker in 1988, and later became a key chapter in Cunningham’s novel A Home at the End of the World (1990):

Here is Carlton several months before his death, in an hour so alive with snow that earth and sky are identically white. He labors among the markers and I run after, stung by snow, following the light of his red knitted cap. Carlton’s hair is pulled back into a ponytail, neat and economical, a perfect pinecone of hair. He is thrifty, in his way.

We have taken hits of acid with our breakfast juice. Or rather, Carlton has taken a hit and I, considering my youth, have been allowed half. This acid is called windowpane. It is for clarity of vision, as Vicks is for decongestion of the nose. Our parents are at work, earning the daily bread. We have come out into the cold so that the house, when we reenter it, will shock us with its warmth and righteousness. Carlton believes in shocks.

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