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Ghost Lights, Lydia Millet, W W Norton & Company, 2011, 255 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Ghost Lights stars an IRS bureaucrat named Hal—a man baffled by his wife’s obsession with her young employer, T., and haunted by the accident that paralyzed his daughter, Casey. In a moment of drunken heroism, Hal embarks on a quest to find T.—the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s much-lauded novel How the Dead Dream—who has vanished in a jungle. On his trip to Central America, Hal embroils himself in a surreal tropical adventure, descending into strange and unpredictable terrain (and an unexpected affair with a beguiling German woman).
I don't know how I discovered Lydia Millet. She has never had a big bestseller but has been a finalist for literary prizes and is loved by literary book bloggers. A few years ago I decided to read How the Dead Dream, the first novel of a trilogy. I was just so pleased.
Ghost Lights is the second in that trilogy and I read it now because I wanted to get through all three novels before her new book, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, came out. For one thing, it does not suffer from the common occurrence where the second of a trilogy is the weaker of the three. If anything, it just carries right on.
In How the Dead Dream the main character, known as T, dumps his successful real estate development business in the hands of devoted secretary Susan and takes off for Central America. He goes completely out of touch leaving Susan consumed with worry.
Ghost Lights opens with Susan's husband Hal, a deadbeat IRS employee who has just discovered that his wife might be cheating on him. In a convoluted attempt to win her back, he volunteers to go find T somewhere in the jungle and bring him back.
Millet's characters are always just this side of whacked out. In that respect she reminds me of T C Boyle and Michael Chabon, two of my favorite authors. Hal is so oblivious. Obsessed with his confusion about Susan, he bumbles around on the outskirts of Central American tourist towns, takes up drinking, has serendipitous encounters with people who help him, and finds T.
And this is only half of the novel! The thing about Millet is she combines elements that shouldn't work together in the same story but they do. Wry humor bordering on slapstick sometimes, political and environmental viewpoints laced with irony, a smidgen of magical realism, all wrapped around the very real sorrows and quandaries of the human heart.
It's like when I invent dishes in my kitchen that are a mashup of various cultures. They are usually delicious and I just call them "fusion." Because if the flavors complement each other and the ingredients meet up in interesting ways, everyone's palate is happy. Well, almost everyone.
Lydia Millet delivers something that delights my reading tastes. And she does not care one whit what she does to you. Ghost Lights ends so surprisingly, as did How the Dead Dream. I can't wait to see if or how she wraps things up in the third book, but with the title, Magnificence, she promises quite a lot.
(Ghost Lights is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)