There is actual tragedy in “Dinosaurs,” but most of it takes place before the book opens – so long ago, in fact, that the central character, Jill, could hardly remember it. As we learned through some brief references, as a child, Jill lost his parents in a car accident. His fierce grandmother took care of him for several years, but then died, too. He stays in her home, where a number of well-paid guardians take care of him “like a fly stuck in amber.” And when he finally turned 18, Jill got a trust fund so huge that it could never be exhausted.
So, “Dinosaurs” is a story about a very wealthy white man who struggles to make his way in the modern world. You might be under the impression that there are more pressing stories being told these days. This novel will confirm this doubt. I kept expecting to feel the dying edge of Millett’s cynical wit, but Jill was allowed to luxuriate in his gold-plated pity largely unscathed.
The opening pages show Jill reeling from a bad breakup with his girlfriend. From the depths of this existential crisis, he became convinced that he needed a change in life and place, so he decided to walk from Manhattan to Phoenix, where he bought a house from the Internet. At 25 miles a day, this trip takes about five months. “Time moved so slowly that it ceased to be measured,” Millett wrote. “The slowness seemed like a blessing.”
We have to take her words seriously.
Soon after Jill moves to his new home in the desert, he notices movement nearby. This is a stunning modern building completely walled in glass. The new owners are an attractive young couple and their two children, a teenage girl and a young boy. “It was hard not to look at them,” Millett wrote. “At first they looked to him like a bunch of mannequins, in a high-end store window. Say Bloomingdale’s. Or Saks.”
You’re probably already thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” or AJ Finn’s latest edition.The woman in the windowor even Netflix’s delicious satire “The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window.” Or perhaps the more skeptical readers among you are concerned about Jill’s interest in his neighbor’s little boy.
I tell you: put all these fears out of your mind.
As this tale unfolds, neighbors and Jill become fast friends. The wife is cheerful. The husband is friendly. Jill waters their plants when they go on vacation. With so much free time, he becomes their son’s babysitter. Although he has no experience with children, he is naturally gentle and encouraging in the ways this child needs.
“Dinosaurs” are not without some emotional tension, but that tension eases, almost underground. Freed from any responsibilities or burdens from his formidable inheritance, a sad and lonely man struggles to find a reason to exist. “I’m just a parasite,” he says. “I have time for everything.” He worries that he’s just “taking up space, an opening in the world, for no good reason.”
Praiseworthy, wants to do Something That matters. Like all of us, he longs for some evidence of his true worth.
Thus, the novel presents a series of well-designed incidents that introduce a generation that is learning to assert its values. In his most determined style, he volunteers as an assistant at a women’s shelter. comforts the widow of his best friend; prevents the bully from attacking the neighbor’s son; And he develops an interest in protecting the local birds, those distant relatives of the dinosaurs.
In such clips, Millett asserts that she is the master of touching moments. These scenes are charming, often witty, and at times poignant. And I have no doubt that the wonderfully rich in the prime of life with nothing to do endure the darkness of the soul with the rest of us – only on better sheets.
But do you want to read about how sad that is?
Millett discovered this kind of existential despair more forcefully than before. for example, “How the dead dream” Follow A wealthy real estate developer suddenly starts dealing with animals rushing to extinction. That novel came out 15 years ago, but I can still remember its agonizing sense of longing and dread woven into a story that constantly bothered me.
Such feelings and weirdness have been effectively domesticated in “dinosaurs,” which ask us for attention but don’t give us many reasons for it.
Ron Charles Browse books and write Book club newsletter For The Washington Post.
W.W. Norton. 230 pages $26.95
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