Sooner or later, every thoughtful person who cares about making a difference is likely to wonder whether younger generations will view them as a dinosaur, stuck in the past, tethered to an outdated worldview. While they’re being thoughtful, they could also spare a moment to consider the plight of other species, or to investigate the effect of their behavior on others. Lydia Millet has addressed these questions before, and she does so again in her novel Dinosaurs.
Gil is a 45-year-old bachelor whose soft-spoken manner belies a life of extremes. He’s filthy rich, but the reason for his inherited wealth, as the novel slowly reveals, is not one that anybody would desire. A sense of noblesse oblige leads Gil, who has never had to work, to accept a series of volunteer jobs, such as helping out at a center for refugee families.
It’s the late 2010s, and Gil is tired of his Manhattan life, where he “had nowhere to be and no one who needed him.” He moves to Phoenix, which he does by walking there over five months. Next door to his Arizona property is a house whose side is made entirely of glass, affording him a clear view of the neighbors: financier Ted, psychotherapist Ardis and their two children, Tom and Clem.
Millet blends the stories of Gil’s friendship with the family next door, particularly with younger child Tom, with tales of acquaintances from Gil’s past. Among them are Van Alsten, a gleefully foulmouthed friend from New York days whose formerly carefree life has changed in profound ways; Lane, a scheming ex-girlfriend who dumped Gil for a cyclist; and a man connected to Gil’s inheritance who unexpectedly emerges after decades of no contact.
Other present-day events further complicate Gil’s life, from the relationships he forms through his volunteer work at a women’s shelter he’s funding, to the mystery of who is killing birds late at night outside his home.
A couple of later scenes go on too long, but even if, like Millet’s other works, this novel is like a delicious meal that doesn’t quite fill you up, it’s still a feast worth tucking into. Millet makes critical points about American aggression, destructive attitudes toward wildlife and the American concept of freedom, “that sacred cow that was always invoked as an excuse for bad behavior.” Dinosaurs is a bracing if subtle reminder that, in the absence of changes to old-fashioned ways, some people are just one good volcanic eruption from going the way of the dinosaur.