Dinosaurs roamed Earth for an almost incomprehensible 180 million years. Had the prehistorical reptiles possessed the ability for introspection, they surely would have believed that their kind would last forever. But few things will cause your illusions of permanence to come crashing down like a gigantic asteroid, well, crashing down. The Chicxulub impactor, which left a nearly 100 mile-wide crater off the coast of Mexico some 66 million years ago, wreaked havoc on Earth’s environment and killed off nearly three-fourths of its plant and animal species. The only dinosaurs to survive the so-called Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event were those that rapidly evolved into ancestors of today’s birds.
These days humans are the ones feeling entitled and imperishable — despite an accelerating climate crisis and a deteriorating social fabric, especially in the United States. In order to survive until the end of the millennia, let alone for the next several million years, we’re going to have to adapt our behavior. Lydia Millet’s magnificent new novel, “Dinosaurs,” highlights our shortcomings in terms of how we treat each other and our environment, and subtly seeks to draw some lessons from the natural world, especially the endurance of our fine, feathered friends.
While “Dinosaurs” has concrete plot developments, the real narrative is one of internal growth centered on Gil, a genuinely good man trying to cope with his own extinction-level event at the end of a 15-year relationship with Lane, who ghosted him for a former Tour de France winner. Instead of running away to the Amazon like he did the first time she broke up with him, Gil sells his loft in the Flatiron District, buys a place in Phoenix sight-unseen, and hits the road, opting to walk the 2,500 miles to his new home, a journey that takes him five months.
Orphaned as a child, Gil was raised by his grandmother until her death when he was 10 years old. He inherited the family fortune and has spent his entire adult life donating both his money and his time. The walk was his way of trying to impose a price on his pain. “You never feel the cost [when you’re wealthy], so you live like everything is free. There’s never a trade-off. Never a choice or a sacrifice, unless you give up your time. I wanted the change to cost me. You know? I wanted to earn it.”
Gil began to really notice birds for the first time in his life while on his walk, and once in Phoenix, he maintains his interest in the many species living in his backyard and the abutting public land with its “dry, sandy riverbed,” “rolling foothills studded with prickly green vegetation,” and “dramatic formations of sandstone.” He befriends his next door neighbors — Ardis, Ted, and their children, Clementine and Tom — who live in a glass house that Ardis calls “a human fish tank.” Gil becomes “half baby sitter, half friend” to the 10-year-old Tom, playing baseball with him, learning to skateboard from him, and bulking him up for martial arts camp in the summer. Gil watches the family’s house while they’re on vacation, cooks dinner for them, and accompanies them on outings.
Chapters are named after specific birds Gil observes — “Hummingbirds,” “Ravens,” and so on — though one is called “Mistletoe,” after the berries that the (perhaps too) exotically named phainopepla eats, and the final chapter is the more universal “Egg.” Millet draws subtle parallels between the behavior of her characters and that of the titular avians, as with a description of how quail choose their homes, which comes soon after Gil’s arrival in Phoenix: “Ground-nesters, supposedly, but now and then they got flustered and made poor choices of nest locations.” It’s a gimmick that could come off as cheesy or heavy-handed, and yet it never does, with Millet relying on spare prose that is dense with meaning if the reader wants to think deeper, but otherwise feels simply like edifying naturalist interludes. Her observations about human behavior are astute, such as “When you’re a young guy, it’s easy to mistake a woman’s boredom for rapture.” Millet writes with a dexterous rhythm and she has a natural ear for lived-in dialogue.
Time after time, “Dinosaurs” develops in unexpected directions, avoiding several potentially cliched turns and any sort of moralizing messaging. The novel buzzes with an uneasy undercurrent of violence, emanating not only from the predatory nature of the natural world, but from the abused women’s shelter where Gil volunteers, the unknown poacher who is shooting birds at night, and the overall vibe in the neighborhood, indeed the entire country, that emerged after the 2016 presidential election, which took place soon after Gil began his walk. Millet keeps things from getting too heavy, however, often with a moment of levity from Sarah, Ardis’s surgeon friend who is interested in Gil, or by checking in with the birds.
Events draw the story back to New York City a couple of times for visits that offer Gil a chance to process those things he had to leave behind, and that provide him further proof that even with all the money in the world, all the free time, all the good intentions, there are limits to what one person can accomplish. Our lives are just “a small blip in a long, steady line” that we are all in together — dinosaurs, birds, and, as of now, humanity. What comes next may not be entirely up to us, but we have to keep trying, no matter how often we fail or get hurt.
By Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton, 240 pages, $26.95
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.