Failure -- real or imagined but sudden and growing -- gnaws at the heart of the protagonist of Lydia Millet's striking new novel, "Ghost Lights."
It is a failure both raw and acute and it comes as a shock to Hal Lindley, the book's Everyman -- who had thought his life more than adequate. But it also serves as a lure to Millet's myriad readers -- who know they can count on her for seamless transport into the vagaries of the human mind.
"Who was he?" Hal asks himself upon learning that his presumably loyal wife of some years is sleeping with a young co-worker, and his adored twentysomething paraplegic daughter is making a living selling phone sex.
"He was a middle-aged IRS employee, a father, a cuckold," Hal concludes. "He was an idiot."
The circumstances, vintage Millet, are enough to upend Hal's complacent existence -- and catapult him from Los Angeles to Central America on a ruse: He will search for Thomas Stern, his wife Susan's boss, who has disappeared while on a business trip to Belize.
This is the same Thomas Stern of Millet's heralded 2007 novel, "How the Dead Dream," a man for whom success means money, a man unlikely to disappear on his own. Not that Hal cares.
"He was not here to find anyone," he confides from Belize. He was, instead, "running away," the better to protect all he "had of his own" -- the knowledge that Susan and her firm's paralegal were "going at it" for God knows how long right under his oblivious nose.
It was a secret he must protect, he claims. For, "without concealment, he would have nothing left."
What follows are breathtaking descriptions not only of nature but of everyday minutiae mixed in with just enough drop-dead satire -- and thoughts on thought -- to remind the reader that this is Millet speaking, a mistress of depth and the abstract, yet a woman who can't resist a joke or a jab.
Millet will call the area outside a grocery store "a lake of pavement" and the coral in the waters off Belize "like brains and antlers, sponges and intestinal tubes and lace and leaves of lettuce." She will create not only a family of stereotypical German tourists but a pair of bohemians "presumably from Lower Manhattan":
"A bohemian was not a German," she writes in her deadpan way. "Socially speaking a German turned outward, like a sunflower toward the sun; a bohemian turned inward like a rotting pumpkin."
Best of all, she will bless Hal with a reverence for "the privacy of the mind," "the sweet privacy of thinking" that Hal terms "always and forever a secret territory."
"Ghost Lights" is layered in this manner -- and, in its often lush, undeveloped locale, becomes something of a parable for our times. Plus, the novel not only has a plot -- and the mystery of Stern -- but it is replete with symbol.
There is no mistaking Millet's intent, for instance, in having her protagonist, Hal, muse at one point, "You hoped that it turned out in the end that you were a prince among men."
Marriage and its difficulties even in good times; remorse for the accident that rendered Casey paraplegic; wonder at where so much time and so many good intentions went are all focuses of the mind that overwhelm Hal in "Ghost Lights."
When he asks himself if another character in the book "had had a little breakdown, or maybe an epiphany," the reader thinks not of the other character but of Hal.
His awakening comes slowly -- featherweight before failure:
"He lived a life that was neither broad nor open Before his venture into this small, subtropical and foreign country, he had never thought of himself as a wimp. Yet it seemed he was often in discomfort since he got here, uncomfortable, exhausted, or alarmed. He had turned out to be a hothouse flower -- a hothouse flower from the first world that wilted in the third. An American hothouse flower, adapted only to the United States. And within the U.S., only to Southern California, or more restricted still -- adapted to the unchanging mildness of West L.A. where the worst weather you encountered was gray."
Hal charts his marriage from its early strength, recalling the day of his mother's funeral, Susan holding his hand: "Armor was what it was, the pair bond, marriage: something enclosing them that offered protection."
But, in time, he sees not only what happened but his part in it: "He had forgotten his wife, mostly. He loved her but all this time he'd practically forgotten that she was there. Susan had been left to her own devices, alone and in the cold while he dreamed his soft dreams of regret (over Casey's accident). That was what happened to the two of them, nothing mysterious He was like an enchanted man. That was who he had been, all these years, a man under a spell, a man absent without knowing his own absence."
Terrible knowledge, this, rendering Hal more lost than Stern and elevating "Ghost Lights" beyond that simple word, "fiction."
For there are real ghosts here -- ghosts of what once was, and of what might have been. Hal -- Everyman that he is -- sees his own disappearance and wishes to be a "widget of a man" no more, wishes to go home and make it right.
We are with him. We understand miscommunication, inattention, cross purposes -- not so much because we are human, too, but because Millet touches us on all levels, telling it as we know it and holding our attention in every paragraph on every page.
This is the second novel of a trilogy for Millet -- both of the first two books featuring male protagonists, Stern in "How the Dead Dream" and Hal in "Ghost Lights."
The latter -- meticulously crafted and aware -- may easily be read without its predecessor. And, if its ending is a bit odd and unexpected, it is somehow perfect for this perfect little prism of a book.
Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.
By Lydia MilletNorton
255 pages, $24.95