Books of The Times: ‘Want Not,’ a Novel by Jonathan Miles

Soon we learn that Talmadge is a garbage-scavenging freegan residing in a roach-infested East Village squat and that he has lifted his anticonsumerist principles unskeptically from the attractive young woman who rescued him from a bad trip at Burning Man. But it’s too late: We like him already, at least a little. He will eventually squander nearly all our readerly sympathies, but that early glimpse into his pleasantly imaginative inner life has given him heft as a character and won part of our affections.

This is an essential trick for any good novelist, and Mr. Miles pulls it off again and again in “Want Not” with increasing degrees of difficulty. After meeting Talmadge — and his girlfriend, Micah, the true ideologue — we are introduced to Elwin Cross Jr., a morbidly obese linguist who’s really let things go since his wife left him. Then, after a long, Elwin-centric set piece about roadkill, we’re whisked off to the home of Sara, a remarried 9/11 widow with a fondness for luxury goods and a pair of enhanced breasts courtesy of her second husband. That second husband, Dave Masoli, is the real piece of work, a man who’s made his fortune persuading poor people to repay loans that would otherwise be forgiven. We meet him after Thanksgiving dinner 2008, as he stares into the toilet “with wide-eyed awe and admiration” at something he has deposited there.

The Masolis, the freegans and Elwin all live in or near New York, but Mr. Miles saves their handful of chance encounters for near the end of the novel. In the meantime he connects his characters not with narrative but with one overarching theme, loudly hinted at by the book’s title and driven home by three on-the-nose epigraphs just inside the front cover: This is a novel about waste. Elwin, the linguist, has begun consulting on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, which aims to warn future humans away from radioactive leftovers long after our languages have all died off. His father is an increasingly senile historian with an interest in genocide. Sara’s daughter, Alexis, has irritable bowel syndrome. Freegans. You get the picture.

It’s a theme out of Dickens — particularly “Our Mutual Friend,” with its story-driving inheritance derived from London’s rubbish. Unlike Dickens, though, Mr. Miles declines to construct an elaborate plot with insistent cliffhangers and unexpected reveals — his gift as a writer is not for story but for back story. This was also evident in his entertaining first novel, “Dear American Airlines,” written as a letter to that air carrier and consisting almost entirely of memories, digressions and regrets.

There’s not much forward motion in “Want Not,” either. Elwin befriends a rowdy neighbor and tentatively begins a new relationship; Talmadge’s college friend Matty comes to town and gets up to no good; Sara and Alexis, a high school senior, grow apart. These unrelated developments inch ahead occasionally while we spend most of our time in the past — especially the past of Micah, Talmadge’s girlfriend, who was raised in Appalachia by a father who had a religious vision and took his family far away from “the World.”

Mr. Miles is frequently funny; he compares one character’s discombobulating discovery to finding out, as an adult, that “Santa was real but also a well-known pederast.” And while he is presumably capable of writing a bad sentence, he doesn’t do so here, despite the big swings he often takes with his prose. (Of early-morning New York City noise, he writes, “Outside, the hydraulic brakes of a sanitation truck hissed the prelude to the glassy music of empty gin bottles being collected from the cocktailery down the block.”)

Some readers may find themselves wanting to spend more time with a smaller group of characters — and perhaps more time in the present as well. Far and away the most gripping and memorable chapter of “Want Not” concerns Alexis and a foreshadowed but long-ignored medical condition (not her bowel disorder). What happens to Alexis is the kind of thing you may have read or heard about more than once and yet found very hard to imagine — and Mr. Miles has imagined it, fully, convincingly, with devastating effect.

But even while engrossed in this rather horrific sequence, I wished I knew Alexis a little better, that her story hadn’t been dropped from view for quite so long. “Want Not” comes in at a shade under 400 pages, and one assumes that many more were discarded as Mr. Miles whittled his literary ambitions down to this relatively reader-friendly amount. It seems greedy to want more, but I would have traded several pages of the Appalachian tale for some time with Alexis between high school and college. And I wanted more information on Matty’s felonious dealings (inspired by discoveries in the trash, naturally) and less about Elwin’s Jeep (rather than junk the vehicle after the roadkill incident, his neighbor gives it a thoroughly detailed makeover).

These are quibbles, perhaps. But as Jonathan Miles knows better than most, a novel, like so many other things, is shaped by what we decide to throw away.

David Haglund is a writer and editor at Slate.

Source Article from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/books/want-not-a-novel-by-jonathan-miles.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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