Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: November 5th 2013
In his new novel, Want Not, author Jonathan Miles explores the concept of wanting in contemporary American society. The story moves between the disparate lives of three groups: Elwin Cross, an overweight linguist professor whose wife has recently left him for a chef; Talmadge and Micah, a young freegan couple squatting in a tenement in Manhattan; and Sue, a 9/11 widow, her daughter Alexis and David, her debt collection businessman/new husband. Each has wants, from Elwin’s desire to get his old life, his old self back to Dave, who’s built his fortune on collecting the debts of the many who wanted too much, but also wants it all and wants it now. It is only as events unfold in their lives that they see where their desires have left them.
Whether it is deliberate on Miles’ part or not, the old saying “Waste not, want not” will come to mind as the novel progresses. The freegans are an obvious example with their dumpster diving, off-the-grid lifestyle, which they embrace with religious fervor.
To hear Tal and Micah tell it, however, it was like some barely known wormhole into another dimension of society, the flip side, the ass end, where everything is genuine and raw because it’s not meant to be seen—that garbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced…
Even the hapless Elwin personifies the credo, albeit from a drunken perspective, when he accidentally hits a deer while driving and decides to take it home and butcher it for the meat, rather than let it be wasted. What follows is a scene that balances humor and dismay in equal measure. The reality of the dead deer and Elwin’s lonely, over-cluttered life cannot be ignored but the comic aspects of just how he is going to proceed at one in the morning, without the proper tools and no place to store the resultant meat or dispose of the carcass, work to pull away the scrim between reader and character, so that we too are contemplating this beautiful dead animal and thinking, “I shouldn’t waste it.” Miles does this with each of the characters, despite their wide range of ages and conditions, assuming their personas with ease and intimate prose. In doing so, he reveals the kind of thoughts that are seldom expressed out loud but that define one’s humanity and create common ground amongst dissimilar people. The bright and sunny Sara marries Dave after the death of her husband on 9/11 and seems to move on from her grief only to find one day
Even the television seemed to affirm this uncertainty as she went scrolling through the channels, yearning for anything that might speak to her, distract her, entertain her, fulfill her for even half an hour, from channel 100 through channel 1195…How obscene and astonishing it was, she thought, that amidst all this digital plenty, there could still be nothing.
There are moments in Want Not that are almost too real- gross frat-boy antics and the bloody drama of childbirth to name two. The urge to stop reading may occur (because, really, how much do we need to know about other people?) but in capturing the profound and the profane the adept Miles creates a novel that touches with its basic yearning for more with less. Read on, this want you should heed.