Lydia Millet thwarts expectation from the get-go in “Dinosaurs,” her thirteenth novel. Gil, our protagonist, has left his life in Manhattan behind following a breakup, and walked — literally walked — across the country to Arizona. But this novel is not about the walk; it’s about the new life he has woken up to since that trek — and how the way he moves forward forces him to reexamine what he has left behind as well.
Though it wasn’t just roadkill that he observed along the way: “The walk was when he first noticed birds.” His appreciation of these descendants of dinosaurs only increases once he settles in bird-filled Phoenix, and Millet’s many descriptions of various species afford much of the book’s most delightful prose. Quail, for example, whose “plumes hung over their faces, between their eyes, and trembled as they ran,” look to Gil like “foolish dandies.”
As to why he’s undertaken the walk to begin with, Gil explains, “When you have a lot of money, you never pay for anything. You never feel the cost, so you live like everything is free. There’s never a trade-off. Never a choice or a sacrifice, unless you give up your time. I wanted the change to cost me. … I wanted to earn it.”
Gil is warmly welcomed to the neighborhood by the couple next door: a psychotherapist, Ardis, and her husband, Ted, whose job “had to do with the funding of infrastructure projects.” Gently prodded by Ardis, Gil soon finds himself bonding with her 10-year-old son, Tom, becoming his “shadow — half babysitter, half friend.” Although Ardis ends up falling for Gil, she never acts on those feelings, and he only learns about them late, and inadvertently. By then he is fully committed to a relationship with Ardis’s divorced friend, a surgeon named Sarah, who is as nice and right for Gil as Lane was mean and wrong.
Gil has just moved from Manhattan to an expensive neighbourhood in Phoenix, Arizona. Thanks to his inherited wealth, the house he is moving into is palatial – his nickname for it is “the castle”. The view of the house next door, however, is its most striking feature, as the wall that faces his windows is made entirely of glass. He can watch the neighbouring family as if they were fish in an aquarium.
This seems to set us up for a strange and unsettling story. Magnifying this effect is the laconic minimalism of the prose. Scenes mainly consist of unadorned dialogue. The average paragraph is two sentences long; many are shorter. Millet likes fragments, so it’s not unusual, either, for a sentence to be one word long. Lurking beneath this clipped surface are mysteries: what crisis drove Gil to leave New York? What will he observe through that glass wall? What is the secret behind his wealth? Gil is determined to use his life in service; to be a good man. Is that possible in 21st-century America for a man of such extreme privilege?
Gil sees his wealth — amassed by his grandfather’s family of fossil fuel barons — as “a coat of shame he always had to wear” and that he is morally obliged to lighten through charitable giving and volunteer work. In Phoenix he applies for a position at a shelter for abused women as a “Friendly Man,” or an “unpaid bodyguard,” ready to escort residents on errands. When I read that the shelter’s director is at first concerned that Gil might be too attractive for the job (“it could be seen as threatening,” she tells him), I foresaw some thorny predicament; but none occurs, and despite a warning that there could be “a run-in with an abuser” Gil never meets any such trouble. He does, however, lose his job when the shelter’s all-female board of directors decides that, given “the culture in the country. The president, et cetera. The toxic masculinity,” it would be better not to have any men working there at all.
Another opportunity for a clash seems to arise when Gil decides to stake out who in the neighborhood is illegally night-hunting birds. But when Gil finally discovers the hunter’s identity, the confrontation takes place almost in passing, and I doubt many readers won’t already have guessed who the villain turns out to be.
Millet keeps thwarting the reader’s expectations of drama, and offers instead a subdued portrait of a wounded middle-aged man’s journey toward wholeness. Early on, Gil tells Ardis and Ted about “his failing attempts to participate in society” — a failure we understand better upon learning of the trauma he suffered as a young child, when an accident caused by an impaired driver left him orphaned. Midway through the novel, the man who was responsible for Gil’s loss, and who has served time in prison for manslaughter, reaches out to him. Old, sick, broke — and never anything but “a loser and a user,” according to Gil’s money manager — the man astonishes Gil with an abject plea for help.