Adapt or die. That brutal Darwinian dictum is too blunt to serve as the motto of Dinosaurs, Lydia Millet’s slim, quietly powerful 12th novel, but the threat of extinction, implicit in the title, hovers in the air. Bird-obsessed – our feathered friends are ‘the last of the dinosaurs’ – the novel tracks two years in the life of a ‘stricken’ character who feels ‘less than whole’. Gil was damaged in early childhood by the sudden death of both parents, and then by a second abandonment, by a long-term girlfriend who absconded, leaving a three-word note: ‘I met someone.’
Gil is rich, having inherited his grandfather’s fortune. He has few friends and no reason to be in one place rather than another. He tries to cure his heartache by walking from Manhattan to Phoenix, Arizona, where he has bought, sight unseen, a large house on the edge of the desert. The long walk does him some good, but even better are the people who move in next door: a husband, wife, teenage girl and younger boy. Theirs is a glass house, literally. ‘At first they seemed like a group of mannequins to him, in a high-end department store window.’ Gil is shy; they are not. Gradually they form a kind of symbiotic relationship.
He observes the neighbours and also the bird life: quail, mourning doves, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, vultures. He volunteers at a shelter for battered women but before long his role is discontinued. The director tells him that the shelter’s board has ‘decided, until the gender climate improves, to put the Friendly Man programme on hold’. (The novel is set during the first half of the Trump presidency.)
Other things happen. The boy next door is bullied. A woman courts Gil.