W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $24.95
Few writers are known for combining dark humor and environmentalism in their fiction; in fact, Lydia Millet may be the only member of that club. For her efforts, in the short story collection “Love in Infant Monkeys,” she was named a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. “Ghost Lights,” her first book since then, is the middle novel of a trilogy that began with 2008’s “How the Dead Dream.”
Literary trilogies may be hard to enter midstream, but Millet has made it easy for those not familiar with the first book to start with this one. Her trick? She’s made a wholly clueless character from the first novel the narrator of this one. It’s Hal, an affluent Southern California father who works for the IRS. He can give us the vague back story — his wife Susan’s boss, a young multimillionaire real estate developer named T., has gone missing — but he’s not so good at details. Exactly how far did the relationship between T. and their daughter Casey go? Like people who haven’t read “How the Dead Dream,” Hal doesn’t know; like any father, he doesn’t really want to.
Hal, “a paper-pusher, a dim gray shade,” is prone to reveries, to hiding out in bathrooms as his mind spins thoughts he can’t say out loud. Sometimes he worries that he thinks too much, but he reassures himself of “the unending and sweet privacy of thinking. How no one else, no matter how great or powerful, could ever enter.... It was a perk of being human: your mind was your own, always and forever a secret territory.” In that territory he harbors lustful thoughts about a beautiful German tourist — but that comes later, after his life has turned upside-down.
As the book opens, Hal and Susan are picking up T.'s dog from its boarding kennel. Susan is devoted to T., and after he goeshe’smissing in Belize, her efforts to track him down are fruitless. Hal has a hard time listening closely — he drifts off, thinking, often about their adult daughter, Casey. She is in a wheelchair, and Hal’s concerns for her are saturated with melancholy, a constant mourning for what her life might have been without the accident. What accident that was, exactly, is too much for Hal to think about; to us, it’s an ongoing mystery. To Casey, it’s the past. She’s sharp-spoken and strong-willed, yet her father cannot look at her without a sense of regret.
Soon the focus of his regret turns to himself, and his own marriage; he stumbles across evidence that his wife of 25 years is having an affair. Stunned, discombobulated and drunk, he volunteers to go to Belize and track down T. His motivations are muddy: He wants to appear heroic to his family, he wants to get away from his wife, he wants to punish her for her betrayal by leaving. This middle-aged IRS man is hardly suited to rescue anyone from the jungle, and he’s not at all concerned about the welfare of T., his quarry, but soon he’s on his way.
There is a wink toward Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and parallels with Ann Patchett’s recent bestselling novel “State of Wonder” in which an American goes to a tropical outpost in pursuit of a lost colleague. In Patchett’s book, the focus narrows on what her protagonist finds there; in “Ghost Lights,” it’s about how Hal is changed. As a thinker, he wonders about the role of authority, of nature, of his relationships and their failures. As an American expat, he sees new edges of the world, and of himself. He is frequently drunk. He ogles the German woman and, with bemusement, watches as her husband rallies a search-and-rescue party to go after T.
As is often the case in stories like this, Hal is less of an actor than someone who is acted upon: In the jungle, things happen to him, rather than the other way around. When he has a sexual encounter, or finds a path to T., these things come to him. In this sense, the story sits and waits (and thinks) for events to push it forward.
This could be dull, if Hal weren’t interesting. But his thoughts wander through worthwhile questions about modern society, nature and connection — “All you were to the rest of the human race was a flash or a glint, a passing moment in the field of the perceived,” he thinks at one point, while later concluding, amusingly, “He was a surplus human, a product of swollen civilization. He was a widget among men.”
That edge of intelligence and humor is enough to satisfy, but the book suffers a bit from its mid-series status. In some ways it seems to be waiting, like Hal, for the next thing to happen.