Ghost Lights. A Novel.
By Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
The protagonist of this novel, Hal Lindley, is a middle-aged, mild-mannered, white male bureaucrat. He works for the IRS, for heaven’s sake. As the novel’s narrator observes, “He lived a life that was neither broad nor open.” His grown daughter, paralyzed as the result of an automobile accident, works for a phone sex line and has an vulgar boyfriend. His wife is unfaithful. He is in a rut. If you were thinking that this is another middle-aged man’s mid-life crisis novel you wouldn’t be wrong.
What normally happens next in novels like this is that a precipitating event brings the crisis to a head. In this case, that event is the disappearance of his wife’s charismatic boss, to whom she seems to be unusually dedicated. “T,” as he likes to be called, a real estate developer, disappears on a trip to Belize. No one can find out what happened to him and the business is tanking in his absence. When Hal discovers that his wife Susan is having sex with Robert, the paralegal, he snaps—or comes into his own—and declares that he will go to Belize and find T.
This is another trope of the mid-life crisis novel: northern European goes to the tropics, encounters new freedom and is changed. The new freedom Hal encounters involves scuba diving, jungle journeys, a sensuous German named Greta, and a newfound confidence in his ability to be an effective person who claims his place in the world rather than sitting dimly in the background while things happen to him.
The fact that this novel follows a familiar plot line isn’t a criticism of it. Just the opposite: Lydia Millet does a masterful job of turning a familiar story into a compelling, funny, moving story of Hal’s journey from being a bland victim of life’s indignities into self-awareness and efficacy.