How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet’s 2009 novel How the Dead Dream traces the development of its main character T. from childhood to early middle age. As the book opens, the boy’s idols are Andrew Jackson and Alexander Hamilton – or at least their depictions on paper money. T.’s early interest in capital, both precocious and problematic, is played for laughs.

Jackson’s grave and finely etched countenance came to him in moments of anxiety and calmed his heart. And from Jackson he moved on to Hamilton, whose face was fraught with nobility and feminine grace despite a nose that was far from small. Hamilton had a homosexual way about him that lent an air of refinement to the ten-dollar bill . . . Jackson was a more primitive version of the American statesman, a rudimentary model waiting to be superceded by gayer men with cleaner fingernails. 

It’s fitting that he reads homosexuality into these powerful presidential idols, father surrogates. His own emotionally stunted father eventually comes out of the closet and abandons his wife and T. (initial instead of name suggesting T.’s own stunting). In his father’s case, however, the shift produces little change in personality or behavior. He’s still limited in his capacity to love, the effects of which we see in his son’s materialistic pursuits at the expense of meaningful connection.

The father’s late discovery acts as a negative example and foreshadow’s the novel’s larger arc in which T. becomes less interested in pursuits typifying male power. He begins to get in touch, literally, with his anima, his female side, by contact with an animal: he hits a coyote while driving.* In the time it takes the animal to die, T. pulls it off the road, stays by its side, and calls it a good boy before realizing he’s got the gender wrong. His last words, “Good girl.” In pondering the beast’s fate, he seems to identify with it: “It probably did not want him near; he should back off. Better to die alone if you were an animal like this one, a loner that avoided contact with humans.” That last sentence could be a projection, “an animal like this one” referring to himself. At this point in the book, T.’s pursuit of male power and independence has him likely destined to die alone.

The accident proves pivotal. He soon adopts a dog, one which eventually ends up on his bed. He warms to a woman, Beth, with whom he gradually falls into a relationship. Beth helps further humanize him, broadens his interests, convincing him to donate some of his earnings to charity. He takes on the care of his mother following her suicidal gesture. Meanwhile his coyote experience motivates him to sneak into zoos at night and sit in the presence of endangered animals.

Novel’s end finds T. more balanced, compassionate, less wealth-obsessed. Grounded. In touch with the earth, its elements, and its other living creatures.

*This scene brings to mind others in literature and film in which a car accident involving an animal provokes reflection. Jon Loomis’s poem “Deer Hit” similarly hints at father-son conflict. In Jordan Peale’s 2017 horror film Get Out, Chris hits a deer as he drives with his white girlfriend to meet her parents. It’s a bad omen, and keeps him awake that night. In William Stafford’s canonical poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” a traveler encounters a recently killed deer, belly warm with fawn, and must decide what to do.