A Tender Man

In Dinosaurs, Lydia Millet imagines an alternative.

dinosaurs, lydia millet
Ivory Orchid

Lydia Millet’s 13th novel, Dinosaurs, is centered by an unlikely product of evolution: a gentle and unselfish man.

The man in question is Gil, fortysomething and recently dumped by his partner of 15 years. He’s left only with an empty New York loft and a dismissive note: “I met someone.” In response, he sells the loft, buys a house sight unseen in an upscale Phoenix suburb, and sets out on foot, walking to a new life in Arizona.

What defines Gil is his vulnerability and sweetness. Children trust him, women want him, men spill their secrets to him. In that sense, Dinosaurs offers a deliciously hopeful meditation on what masculinity might become. During Gil’s long walk, we learn an essential bit of context: The time is November 2016, and Americans have just elected an icon of toxic masculinity to the presidency. Gil “mailed in his ballot before he left, his final civic act as a New Yorker, and assumed politics would proceed as they usually did. Though likely, this time, there’d be a woman managing the compromises and the mediocrities.”

Like many of us, he is in despair at the outcome.

In Arizona, Gil nicknames his new home the castle for its high ceilings and empty silence. Next door is a house made entirely of glass on one side, and when a family from Denver moves in, Gil finds it impossible not to watch. Soon, Gil observes those neighbors as “they [walk] down to the sidewalk and [turn] toward his own front yard. Then up his front walkway.”

Thus begins a symbiotic relationship, particularly with 10-year-old Tom, who, his mother, Ardis, explains, is in desperate need of a playmate. Gil complies. He’s the kind of man who not only picks up the neighbor kid from martial arts but also arrives early and sits down to watch.

Gil volunteers at a women’s shelter as a “Friendly Man,” accompanying women on errands in case a violent ex shows up. One day, though, he is called into the office, where he is told, “There’s a concern, right now. Among the members of the board. The culture in the country. The president, et cetera. The toxic masculinity.… They’ve decided, until the gender climate improves, to put the Friendly Man program on hold.”

As she has in novels such as George Bush, Dark Prince of Love (2000) and A Children’s Bible, which was a finalist for a 2020 National Book Award, Millet is engaging in social commentary, the novel as a form of cultural critique. At the same time, she is reflecting on her signature concerns: evolution and extinction. How, she wants us to consider, do we adapt when the old ways stop working? The question lies nestled in the lyrical bird imagery of Dinosaurs. “A tree in a forest of trees,” Millet writes, “where men grew from apes and birds grew from dinosaurs.”

Woven into Gil’s story are his musings on the birds that live in the open space behind the castle. In this haven for wildlife and desert vegetation, animal behavior becomes a proxy for human behavior. When conditions were no longer favorable, some dinosaurs became extinct while others evolved into birds. These are matters of both aesthetic and personal concern; in addition to her writing, Millet works for the Center for Biological Diversity.

In Gil’s Arizona cul-de-sac, there is bullying, violence, and guns. He tries to deal with it as best he can. The novel’s most delightful moments occur in conversations where he models a variety of enlightened behaviors: acknowledging that he doesn’t have all the answers, listening, holding space with patience and curiosity. Reflecting on an old friend, for instance, Gil recalls him as “full of tenderness. But raw. His words were his armor, that was all.” Later, over drinks with Tom’s father, Ted, he soothes the other man: “Talk all you like.”

Gil’s openness creates room for discovery, as when he and Ted debrief on Ardis. “It just, like, took me years to realize the look on her face wasn’t adoration,” Ted says, to which Gil responds, “When you’re a young guy, it’s easy to mistake a woman’s boredom for rapture.” In Millet’s hands, these evolving baby birds of men are tender, well-intentioned, and often confused. The women allow for this, spending no time enabling helplessness.

Dinosaurs reads like a sanctuary, an escape to an imaginary oasis from an America that feels increasingly cruel. It’s a piña colada poolside with a twist of Ted Lasso, the kind of book that comes to mind during the day while you’re doing other things, making you long for bedtime and a return to this Arizona fishbowl.

At 240 pages, Dinosaurs ends abruptly. Just as we’re itching to know what happens next, the story is done. But that’s the hallmark of a favorite novel, isn’t it? The characters feel so real that after you finish, you keep returning to visit them in your mind.•

W.W. Norton & Company
DINOSAURS: A NOVEL, BY LYDIA MILLET
W.W. Norton & Company Bookshop.org
$25.06
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