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In a widely discussed 2010 study, the AARP Foundation reported that more than one-third of respondents ages 45 and up felt lonely, and that the health damage resulting from prolonged loneliness was the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That grim data came to mind while reading Lydia Millet’s gentle new novel, DINOSAURS, a story that’s all about human connection --- how we long for it, how elusive it can be, and how grateful we are to achieve it.

The fact that Gil, Millet’s protagonist, would sell his loft in Manhattan’s Flatiron District before embarking on a five-month, 2,500-mile journey on foot to a new home in Phoenix he purchases sight unseen, apart from virtual tours and photographs, immediately reveals that there’s something unusual about him. He is also a wealthy man who has reached his mid-40s having had only one paying job --- a brief stint as a bartender that he quit because he felt guilty about taking the place of someone who needed the money --- a bit of biography that only deepens his mystery.

"DINOSAURS is a short, spare but eloquent novel whose characters slowly insinuate themselves into the mind, and then the heart."

When Gil arrives at his new home, a dwelling he thinks of as a castle, he finds that it’s situated next door to a glass-walled house that provides a “fish-tank reality show” when a family of four moves in. Gil’s relationship with the family --- husband Ted, wife Ardis, teenage daughter Clem and 10-year-old son Tom --- quickly flourishes, especially when Ardis asks him to act as a companion for Tom (“half babysitter, half friend”) during the summer they arrive. Tom introduces Gil to skateboarding, and he accompanies the boy to martial arts lessons or watches him practice with a punching bag in his backyard, as he becomes something of a surrogate parent.

Hoping to fill the hours when he’s not with Tom, Gil volunteers as an escort at a shelter for abused women. His job is to accompany them and their children on their daily activities, like shopping or going to the movies, and to protect them in the event of an unexpected encounter with their abuser. However, he is strictly admonished against trying to establish any kind of personal connection. At the shelter, he meets Jason, a fellow escort who is an avid birder and whose social awkwardness provides some of the novel’s more lighthearted moments.

As his relationship with his neighbors deepens and as a new woman enters his life even as he’s still ruminating about the end of his previous relationship, Millet gradually peels back the layers of Gil’s past to reveal the sudden, painful end of the pairing that triggered his move to Arizona, the family tragedy he experienced as a young child that gave him his financial independence, and his friendship with a larger-than-life ex-Navy Seal named Van Alsten. Another character involved with Gil’s early loss emerges to complicate his relationship to that event. Millet explores the tension that arises from all of these entanglements with expert pacing and prose that possesses the virtue of never calling attention to itself.

Well-known for her preoccupation with environmental issues, Millet’s descriptions of the Arizona desert and its abundant wildlife provide a vivid backdrop for the novel. Whether it’s hummingbirds, vultures or ravens, most of the chapter titles bear the names of birds --- “the last of the dinosaurs,” as Gil thinks of them. Since 1970, as Jason points out, the United States has lost almost a third of its bird population --- some three billion birds. Concerned for the well-being of some of the native avian life, Gil even purchases a pair of night vision goggles to help him search for the person who has been shooting quail in the dark in the dry creek bed behind his home.

Contemplating our connection with our fellow human beings or with nature, “separateness had always been the illusion. A simple trick of flesh,” Millet writes. DINOSAURS is a short, spare but eloquent novel whose characters slowly insinuate themselves into the mind, and then the heart. It might be something of an overstatement to suggest that a novel has the power to make its reader a better person, but in the case of this book it’s only a modest one.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 14, 2022

by Lydia Millet

  • Publication Date: August 22, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324066121
  • ISBN-13: 9781324066125