The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine

Being nice is hard

A trust-fund orphan tries to do good in a world out of whack

- (Star Tribune/TNS)

Iheard Lydia Millet asked once, in an interview, why she’d left the literary world of New York, where she clearly thrived. She said that it was too easy to be mean there, and she’d rather be nice – or words to that effect. Niceness is not generally considered a literary virtue, but in Millet’s work generally, and her new novel Dinosaurs specifical­ly, it certainly is.

Niceness, in fact, is the defining trait of the novel’s protagonis­t, Gil, who, after the abrupt and unhappy ending of a 15-year relationsh­ip, has just purchased a house, sight unseen, on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, and walked there, over the course of five months, from Manhattan. “At least you finally did something,” his ex-girlfriend says sometime later, when they briefly meet. And though he never took money for it, Gil thinks, “I always did something .... They could put it on his gravestone: He tried to be of use.”

Gil, an orphan raised in an austere fashion by his grandmothe­r, is the heir to an oil fortune, uncomforta­bly conscious of his privilege and committed, in a modest way, to doing good works. In his new house (“he thought of it as a castle”), he becomes involved with the family that lives next door, in a house that he thinks of as a “glass-walled stage.”

As he, almost incidental­ly, becomes the friend, guardian and babysitter of that family’s 10-year-old boy, Tom, Gil volunteers at a shelter for abused women, hunts for whoever – illegally and simply immorally – is shooting birds in the neighborho­od and contends with the pitiful man who’s just gotten out of prison for running over Gil’s parents when Gil was a child.

This all unfolds in the most natural way, with current moments tracing back to Gil’s past, and the sense of his character accumulati­ng from quiet moments with Tom, Tom’s parents and Sarah, a new, slowly emerging love interest. And through it all, there is a concern about what’s happening in the world, depredatio­ns environmen­tal, political and personal.

It’s hard to say why this is so involving and moving, but it is. When someone bullies Tom, when the dead birds are discovered, when Gil’s friend in New York makes a painful sacrifice, Gil’s moral compass is dead-on, but his choices are not easy, and the results are anything but guaranteed.

In short, you like the guy because he’s nice but also because being nice is difficult, revelatory and, finally, satisfying. And Millet, whose talent is at once outsize and subtle, makes it seem perfectly natural.

 ?? ??
 ?? (Brian Snyder/Reuters) ?? LOOKING DOWN on a Phoenix, Arizona, suburb from South Mountain. The book revolves around a suburb in that city.
(Brian Snyder/Reuters) LOOKING DOWN on a Phoenix, Arizona, suburb from South Mountain. The book revolves around a suburb in that city.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel