How the Dead Dream

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

The main character in Lydia Millet’s inventive but flawed sixth novel is a young, wildly successful real-estate developer named Thomas, or simply T. After a childhood spent collecting money for bogus charities and conning protection money out of an unfortunate classmate, Thomas, the son of an increasingly batty mother and an apparently loveless dad, develops a sophisticated knack for observing human nature that helps him charm vast sums of money out of investors. Until, that is, his car strikes a coyote on the freeway, sparking in T. a deep empathy for animals, especially endangered species. Breaking into zoos at night, he basks in the dignity of the beasts that dwell there. He also begins to warm to other people, but none of his overtures end well.

Even when she stumbles, the witty and perceptive Millet—author of a handful of stunning books including Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, a fantastical novel about the creators of the atomic bomb—is more interesting than most writers at their best. The author packs a lot of promising ideas into this slender novel—pervasive Madonna-and-child imagery, for example. As a boy, T. observes his devout mother’s pictures of the Virgin Mary, “some of them holding a baby Jesus T. believed might be a stand-in for him.” This reference intrigues, but its significance remains muddled. Is T. a martyr? Is his long-suffering mother a saint? Go-nowhere subplots (T.’s dad turns out to be gay) and clichéd satirical portraits (the crass residents of a desert retirement community; a sadistic business associate) also enervate the story. How the Dead Dream is the first book in a planned trilogy; perhaps the gifted Millet will regain her focus for the second installment.

—Carolyn Juris

By Lydia Millet. Counterpoint, $24.