A young couple squats in a Lower Manhattan apartment, living off the trash of the land. A linguist mired in a midlife crisis signs a government contract to help dispose of nuclear waste. A debt collections magnate who seems to have everything decides he wants more.
Want Not, Jonathan Miles’ follow-up to his acclaimed debut novel, Dear American Airlines, is a multi-tiered narrative built upon this unlikely cast of characters. Miles examines the things we dispose of, the means by which we sort through the scraps, and the people whom society discards— the written-off souls left to languish in “human junkyards.”
The novel opens on Micah and Talmadge, two squatters in an abandoned East Village apartment. Micah adheres to the tenets of freeganism—the practice of reclaiming and eating food that has been thrown out—because, as she puts it, “The amount of waste this society generates is enough to feed and clothe and sustain entire other countries. . . it’s not only possible but doable to survive off that waste stream.” Her boyfriend, Talmadge, is a recent convert to Micah’s belief system, moon-eyed and mostly along for the ride. The two have inhabited their squat for more than a year, sustaining themselves by foraging for food and supplies in the dumpsters of New York City. When an old college friend of Talmadge’s pays a visit and ends up moving in, Micah and Talmadge find their unconventional lifestyle thrown into disarray.
The second storyline involves a down-on-his-luck, obese professor of linguistics named Elwin Cross who lives in the New Jersey suburbs. We meet Elwin just as he strikes and kills a deer while driving home one night, setting off an unexpected chain of events. Elwin feels his life has nearly reached a dead end: He is 54 years old, he hates his job, and his wife recently left him for a younger man. His mother is gone and his father is on the way out, suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The only thing Elwin has to distract him from his mid-life woes is an upcoming trip to the New Mexico desert: He has signed on to take part in a government panel charged with designing a warning label for a stash of radioactive material slated for burial by the Department of Energy. The problem: What system of signs and symbols should one use for the site’s warning label, since “Whatever system they implement has to be effective for ten thousand years, the full radioactive lifespan. The question is how to communicate when no language has proven itself durable for a fraction of that time.”
Finally, there is the story of Dave Masoli, a surprisingly likable debt collections magnate recently married to Sara, a widow whose husband died in the 9/11 attacks. Dave made his riches by purchasing written-off debts and then shaking down debtors. He has a luxurious home in New Jersey, a beautiful wife, and a stepdaughter with whom he has friendly relations (occasionally a little too friendly). But Dave’s thirst for more repeatedly gets him in trouble: At one point, Dave hires college girls to create alluring Facebook pages to tempt male debtors into accepting friend requests, thus giving his collection agents access to invaluable financial information. This strand of the novel unfolds as domestic drama with a slice of forbidden fruit: A triangle of sorts develops among Dave, Sara, and Sara’s teenage daughter, Alexis.
These three alternating storylines run independently of each other, with none of the characters from any of the separate narratives coming into contact with each other until the end, and then only glancingly.
The risk of the loosely linked, threaded narrative is that the reader will end up preferring one storyline far above the rest, making a majority of the reading experience like time spent in a waiting room. The most impressive thing about Want Not‘s polyphonic approach is that, for the most part, Miles pulls it off brilliantly, with an intricate weave of theme and motif providing a perfect level of cohesion.
The story of Elwin the linguistics professor turns out to be the heart of the novel, putting on full display Miles’ impressive range as a novelist: Here we have moments of tender sadness between Elwin and his ailing father, dashes of science fiction as we follow Elwin into the New Mexico desert to help design what is essentially an enormous time capsule filled with nuclear waste, and splashes of humor as we track Elwin’s trials and tribulations as a cuckolded middle-aged man.
Miles’ first novel was acclaimed for its comedic punch, and rightfully so: He is a brilliant humorist. In Want Not, however, the humor is dialed down, with Miles proving he can deal with tragedy, big ideas and even horror just as skillfully as comedy. Yet when the story calls for humor, Miles gleefully plunges in, and the results will not disappoint fans of Dear American Airlines. In one scene, Elwin is caught in traffic in the Holland Tunnel, ruminating on his failed marriage:
Scanning the radio, Elwin discovered a weird surfeit of Billy Joel songs, causing him to conclude that Billy Joel must have just died—a fair hypothesis for why all of radioworld seemed to be paying him sudden and synchronous tribute. This saddened him, not because he liked Billy Joel—he didn’t—but because Maura did, and though their marriage was apparently over, he was still somehow conjoined with her, so that, imprisoned inside the Holland Tunnel, he felt the stab of her grief vicariously. . . after a while Elwin realized he’d conned himself into mourning Billy Joel.
In the strand involving dumpster-diving Micah and Talmadge many readers will detect echoes of Don DeLillo. For instance, a scene describing garage sale season in New Jersey reads like an homage to the opening of White Noise, and there are several snappy passages sermonizing on waste and consumerism, à la Underworld:
Garbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced, because that’s where all the dirty secrets went, all the adulterous love letters and the murder weapons and the abandoned poems and the unflattering photos and the never-to-be-counted empty booze bottles and the wads of Kleenex dampened by a woman who can’t understand why she rises from bed at 3 A.M. and goes creeping by her perfect sleeping husband and children to weep at the kitchen table about imperfections she can’t quite name.
To be fair, it would be difficult for any multi-narrative novel focusing on garbage, salvagers, alleyway-lurkers and nuclear material to completely escape Underworld’s shadow. But flowing around the flashes of hard-edged DeLilloesque passages is the novel’s dominant prose style—sinuous, imaginative, and pitch-perfect.
Inside the house Elwin muttered hello to Bologna, a fifteen-year-old mutt that he’d found, as a half-starved, mange-ravaged, and seriously ugly puppy, on the side of the Ventura Highway licking a dead duplicate of itself—clearly, someone had dumped a litter there.
Much of the Micah and Talmadge thread has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, with street-dwellers doddering around bleak cityscapes as part of their dumpster-diving circuits. Between these scenes and Elwin’s mission to design a timeless nuclear warning label, one gets the sense that Miles could easily write a solid science fiction novel. There are absurd, heated disputes between the dumpster divers and the grocery store owners who feel as though the perfectly good food they toss in the trash is off-limits to everyone, especially those who want to make use of it. Micah initially comes off as a stereotypical young, radical, tattooed-and-dreadlocked, tough-but-sexy love interest, but Miles eventually explodes that cliché by revealing her incredible backstory. Miles delves deep into the backgrounds of nearly all his main characters—the flashbacks to Micah’s childhood are so beautifully rendered that I almost felt reluctant to return to present-day Micah.
And it is Miles’ skillful rendering of the characters in two of his storylines that brings into sharp relief what feels like the novel’s only major weakness: the third storyline involving the debt collector, Dave, and his new wife, Sara. This narrative opens on Sara, recently widowed by the 9/11 attacks, as she discovers, while rummaging through her deceased husband’s belongings, that he was having an affair. Sara is given an elaborate and compelling introduction and then pushed into the background for most of the novel. The narrative shifts to her new husband, Dave, and his secretive relationship with Sara’s 17-year-old daughter, Alexis. But Miles never delves into Dave’s history with anything approaching the depths he plumbs with the other characters. Toward the end of the novel the reader is expected to care about Dave, Alexis and Sara after getting little more than juvenile musings from Dave, an overdose of typical teenage angst from Alexis, and an inexplicable disappearing act on Sara’s part. Though Dave and Sarah are meant to represent avarice and vapid consumerism at their extremes, they felt like potentially interesting shallow characters who fell victim to an unnecessarily shallow approach.
But what the Dave and Sarah narrative lacks in depth it makes up for in sheer entertainment value: It is so effectively plotted and paced that it unfolds along page-turner lines. Toward the end of Dave and Sarah’s story Miles springs a shocking scene that had me cringing like no other novel in recent memory.
And it is this talent of Miles’ that augurs a brilliant literary career: his ability to turn a rant against American Airlines into witty, poignant comedy gold; his ability to parlay trash into compulsively readable material. Reading Want Not, one gets the sense that no matter what subject Jonathan Miles decides to tackle, the results will be well worth reading.