The lives of the wealthy and powerful, as described by biographers, are more often than not confined to great deeds and equally great follies. Autobiographical accounts from this world exhort ordinary people to emulate their characteristics and replicate their successes. Meanwhile, novelists, generally a left-leaning bunch, tend to view the workings of power with suspicion, if not outright scorn, and thus fictional portraits of the ?ber-capitalists among us are frequently limited to villainous caricature.
Those who wish to contemplate what makes such men tick are much indebted then, to Lydia Millet, an unabashedly political writer who has developed a curiosity about the inner lives of powerful men that feels fresh and nearly subversive. Her sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, follows a young real estate developer who replaces his lifelong love of money with an equally gripping obsession with endangered animals.
If that plot summary seems like a high-wire act, consider that Millet’s last novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), was based on the premise that three nuclear physicists instrumental in developing the atom bomb — Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard — are somehow transported to the Santa Fe desert in 2003, befriend a librarian and her husband, see the carnage their genius has wrought, and go on a road trip preaching the virtues of nuclear disarmament. That novel should not have worked, but it was frankly bedazzling in execution and ended up on many year-end best-of lists (including my own). (Millet’s other two novels featuring difficult American men include George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, an ode to President Bush Senior written in the voice of a trailer-park stalker and Everyone’s Pretty, about an alcoholic pornographer, inspired in part by Millet’s stint as a copy editor for Larry Flynt publications).
While the physicists’ love of pure science blinded them to the ends to which their invention would be used, T., the protagonist of Dead, exhibits a visceral love of money in all its forms. As a child, his reverence for the coin of the realm is so great that often, he stores a few in his cheeks for safekeeping (a filthy habit, according to his mother). He ascribes personality traits to the faces of dead presidents on depicted on bills (“Hamilton had a homosexual way about him that lent an air of refinement to the twenty dollar bill” while “Jackson was a more primitive version of the American statesman, a rudimentary model waiting to be superseded by gayer men with cleaner fingernails”). And he judges his classmates on the degree to which they resemble the American forefathers immortalized in cash:
None came close, he lamented; still he saw a trace of Hamilton’s light eyes in the face of Becky Spivak and his well-turned mouth on Gina Grosz, a victim of rosacea? If he could detect an edge of arrogant pride in a skinny girl at a swim meet, say, jiggling a bare foot in the bleachers as she stared coolly at the other swimmers, he was pleased; he was reminded of the potential for all shackled beasts to break form their bonds and rise, their wings beating, into the stratosphere. He clung to a vision of forward motion, the breath of hope that could lift individuals into posterity. He told himself everyday of this latent capacity for eminence among humans, to the untrained eye so often hard to see. Rise my sister! Rise my brother! Soar.
Few of T.’s acquaintances, however, would see evidence that he has great hopes for the future of humankind. As a child, he extorts money from friends in exchange for favors and runs a bustling black market in forbidden commodities such as tampons, brassieres, and naked pictures of a friend’s sister. He collects hundreds of dollars, ostensibly to benefit cancer societies, African orphans, and the like and rationalizes his actions with the guile of a politician three times his age: Given that he always donates at least a percentage of the proceeds to the actual cause, he reasons, his transactions have “a positive net effect”; when asked by his mother if the money really went to feed hungry children, T., answers quite honestly, “All the funds went to children. Yes. They did.”
By the time T. enrolls in college at a small town in North Carolina (which closely resembles Duke, where Millet earned a master’s degree in environmental policy), “he had learned to like abstract money better than its physical body.” Still, his love of money in its pure state seems to set him apart from his fraternity brothers whose air of privilege makes T. consider them “children with handicaps” caused by “ease, abundance, overstimulation.” Millet provides a particularly adept description of the giddy freedom T. feels upon graduation, with childhood behind him and a future of pure potential ahead: “Step forward, he told himself, step, step, daily into the night, nightly into the day. The unknown shimmers. There was paradise still to come.” Soon after, he sets off to start his new life as a real estate developer in California; as he drives, “he felt a legion of tycoons riding shotgun.”
Alas, T.’s euphoria is short-lived. When his Catholic mother is ditched by his feckless father and seeks shelter with him, he is drawn back into the messy realm of human entanglements. On the plus side, he meets a gorgeous woman, Beth, an ideal partner for a future captain of industry with “a capacity for appropriateness wherever she went” who makes everything “acceptable.” (In true Millet fashion, rather than being the requisite blue-blooded Wasp, T.’s ideal mate has “erect posture, effortless dignity and perfect light brown skin”; while a former frat brother asks Beth, “So are you like Asian or black or something?” Millet leaves her ethnicity an open question). But Mom gets drunk, picks up gentlemen companions and a smoking habit, and flirts with suicidal behavior. And Beth, tragically, is removed from the scene.
Left with few companions outside his beloved dog and creepy capitalists (including the weasel Fulton, the kind of guy who cheats on his wife, makes racist quips while blaring gangsta rap, and brags that his great-grandfather was a rapist and therefore a “superhetero”), T. sides with the animals. He develops an obsession with endangered species and sees extinction as a creeping cancer, “the grey that metastasized over continents.” The man who idealized presidents as a little boy now sees Teddy Roosevelt instead as merely a laundry list of his hunting quarry: “Five hundred and twelve animals shot, including seventeen lions, eleven elephants, twenty rhinos, nine giraffes, forty-seven gazelles, eight hippos and twenty-nine zebras.”
T., the eco-warrior, unlike T., the capitalist with a begrudging love for humanity, has less cognitive dissonance between his ideals and his actions. As such, the last third of the book is animated with less frisson than the first parts. For that reason, those unfamiliar with Millet’s work might be advised to start with Oh, Pure and Radiant Heart to get a sense of just how astonishing she is at her best. But even if she has not topped herself in this novel, her passion, inventiveness, and sheer turns of phrase make it a book well worth savoring.