Want Not by Jonathan Miles

Want NotWhen prompted to offer up a pithy description of life on Planet Earth for future generations, one might be tempted to filch a line from a character in Jonathan Miles’ second novel: “We came, we saw, we trashed.” With a title like Want Not, you’d think its author, if not the book’s characters, might agree. But what makes Miles’ new book (after the much lauded Dear American Airlines) so luminous and so resonant is what it asks instead: Or did we?

The answer, of course, is complicated. If you ask Talmadge, a twentysomething freegan who scavenges and dumpster-dives for food and department store castoffs, society is a boundless receptacle of endless waste: “Waste doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t affect profits. They’ve built it into the system . . . and no one cares, man. Because we’ve been conditioned not to care. We’ve been taught to dispose.” Camped out in a homey but roach-infested squat in New York City’s East Village with his equally militant hippie girlfriend Micah, Talmadge prefers to steer clear of the grid while living off its discarded proceeds.

For 43-year-old Sara and her churlish second husband Dave, who made his fortune buying dead debts for cheap and extracting payment from those responsible, however, fancy cars and a flashy luxury home in what was envisioned to be an exclusive New Jersey subdivision are the ultimate right of passage — coveted symbols of status and achievement. Sure, she’s rankled by a chafing breast enlargement (done at the request of randy Dave), a lack of sexual appetite, and her growing estrangement from Alexis, her surly teenage daughter from her first marriage. But why shouldn’t Sara treat herself to the occasional splurge at Bergdorf Goodman? Isn’t that a precursor to happiness?

Though they might seem so at first, Miles’s characters aren’t merely clichéd byproducts of a greedy civilization gone off its hinges, nor are their alternating and briefly colliding stories a vehicle for authorial musings guised as preachy sermons on how to — or not to — live. Instead, what is slowly revealed as the book progresses is their deep collective desire to feel accepted — saved, albeit temporarily, from the proverbial eternal rubbish bin. And, well, wanted.

If that sounds corny, it’s not. Miles delves deep into his characters’ backstories to reveal their vulnerabilities, which makes all of them, in a way, charming—and human. There’s Micah’s impoverished upbringing in the virtually inaccessible backwoods of Appalachia juxtaposed by Talmadge’s freewheeling frat days at Ole Miss with Matty, his squirrely best-friend turned ex-con and interloper at the squat. There’s Sara’s first marriage to a bond broker on Wall Street who died in the 9/11 attacks; she learned of his affair right after she watched the Twin Towers fall. And then there’s Elwin, an overweight shlub of a linguistics scholar in the throes of a midlife crisis, thanks to his soon-to-be ex-wife’s not-so-fleeting dalliance with a chef. Elwin’s attempts at redefining himself and rebuilding his life while caring for his father who is dying of Alzheimer’s, and Alexis’s struggle to come into her own while dealing with a mistake she would much rather forget (semi-spoiler alert), are two of the more touching plot threads in the book.

There are a few missteps — Micah’s instantaneous urge to be pregnant after scoring a onesie from a dumpster, for one. But Want Not is so packed to the gills with heady themes and fierce writing that they barely register. As for the original question? Trashed planet or not, perhaps it’s just as Elwin says: “maybe we [are] all just atoms bouncing into one another in the black swirl of space, bound and released by the ebb and flow of something like static electricity, or like items in the marketplace, bought and used and disposed of and then if we’re lucky, salvaged and reused.”

Originally ran in The Oregonian November 11, 2013


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