Want Not Paperback – 13 May 2014
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From the Back Cover
A "New York Times" Notable Book
A wonderful book, and there s no one I would not urge to read it . . . This is the work of a fluid, confident and profoundly talented writer who gets more fluid, more confident and seemingly more talented even within the book itself. Dave Eggers, "New York Times Book Review"
A highly inventive and corrosively funny story of our times, Want Not exposes three different worlds in various states of disrepair a young freegan couple living off the grid in New York City; a once-prominent linguist, sacked at midlife by the dissolution of his marriage and his father s losing battle with Alzheimer s; and a self-made debt-collecting magnate, whose brute talent for squeezing money out of unlikely places has yielded him a royal existence, trophy wife included.
Want and desire propel these characters forward toward something, anything, more, until their worlds collide, briefly, randomly, yet irrevocably, in a shattering ending that will haunt readers long after the last page is turned.
Shrewd, funny, and sometimes devastating . . . What "Want Not" does best, though, isn t plotting but portraits of humanity: the small epiphanies and private hurts of every person whose life, like the detritus they produce, is as beautifully mundane and unique as a fingerprint. "Entertainment Weekly"
An impassioned work of fiction. "Dallas Morning News"
[author photo] Jonathan Miles is a former columnist for the New York Times and a contributing editor to magazines as diverse as Field & Stream and Details. He writes regularly for the New York Times Book Review and Literary Review (UK). A former longtime resident of Oxford, Mississippi, he currently lives with his family in rural New Jersey.
About the Author
JONATHAN MILES's first novel, "Dear American Airlines", was named a New York "Times" Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the "Wall Street Journal". A former columnist for the New York Times, he serves as a contributing editor to magazines as diverse as "Field & Stream" and "Details", and writes regularly for the New York "Times Book Review" and "The Literary Review" (UK). A former longtime resident of Oxford, Mississippi, he currently lives with his family in rural New Jersey.
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Top Customer Reviews
In several storylines, the general theme of waste and our need to possess are explored, with some fascinating characters - a doctor of linguistics, squatting vegans, a family who lost a family member in the World Trade Centre.
There's an original and funny opening chapter that keeps you reading, and some varied and very human characters and stories, all of which I enjoyed. Miles' writing is often very funny - one man almost loses his life in the pursuit of free steak. There is pathos too - an unwanted birth, a father with dementia who can recall poetry without error. The writing is lovely.
From birth to death and all our possessive instincts in between, Want Not has a lot to say and says it with style and a familiar yet original voice.
Review of a Netgalley review copy.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Author Jonathan Miles has a gift for language, plays with language, creates his own words, and displays a riotous sense of humor. Some of it is bathroom humor, to be sure, but at his peak moments, he is simply outrageously funny. He doesn't always reach these peaks. Sometimes I had to put the book down and rest after a page or two. Colorful characters abound, talk, ruminate about their lives, and make their situations worse, but it's sometimes hard to keep them all straight. Near the end of the book their chaotic paths intersect briefly, bringing the novel to its climactic final moments.
This book is hard to review because it doesn't fit into the usual categories and its quality is so mixed. Moments of sheer comic genius, yes, intriguing characters, yes, and also stretches of ill-defined chaos and confusion. I recommend this book but it's clearly not for everyone. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
The novel's title calls to mind the old adage, "Waste not, want not." As the narrative opens with Talmadge scavenging in a trash heap, the reference is none too subtle. There are other blatant references, like the aforementioned radioactive wasteland (and even the scatological), but there are more creative allusions as well. It may be a tad harsh and biting (but also undeniably apropos) when the nursing home is also characterized as a trash receptacle - ready to receive society's unwanted castoffs. In fact, it's just such poignant and potentially troubling observations that (almost?) redeem the novel.
There's very little narrative cohesion to the story. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of alternating the chapters between the cast (even within the smaller groups). But it also arises because the author chooses to jump back and forth in time to anecdotally support his themes rather than tell a conventional story. The danger is that there's no momentum carrying the reader forward. Alternatively, however, to the author's credit, he creates at least two scenes with real nail-biting suspense and tension. Unfortunately the novel's raison d'etre, its message, isn't so tightly presented as to assure the reader that his time is not being wasted (irony).
The story does have heart. The author fantastically conveys the insecurities and foibles of his characters whether in the aftermath of losing a loved one (to death, infidelity, or disease) or in a growing family (due to pregnancy or remarriage). His observations on civilization are challenging and intriguing without being overly pedantic. The emotional highpoints of the story where redemption is possible were truly inspiring (primarily found in the Cross thread). But there were some real low points as well.
Sadly, its charming heart is dangerously close to being lost in the rather aimless presentation. At times the characters behave in ways that defy explanation and they aren't always likable or even relatable. The focus doesn't always make sense and the message isn't always clear.
"Want Not" is definitely a mixed bag. I'm not quite sure there are enough positives to make the reading experience worthwhile. But for the prospective reader who chooses to venture forward, there are some treasures to be "salvaged."
- "The great sin of parenting, Sara felt, was letting your children aim too low. Allow them to settle, and that's just what they'd do. Loose expectations were like junk food; kids just gorged themselves."
- "What we leave behind, he'd come to believe, is mere simulacra, the invented residue of our public selves."
- "How obscene and astonishing it was, she thought, that amidst all this digital plenty, there could still be nothing."
He not only observes people but the things we have created. Take this home description as an example, "It was a three-story Colonial, circa 1890, majestic and maybe even ostentatious when it was built having been divided and subdivided over the years, overhauled and under hauled, and modernized and plasticized, its honey-colored plank floors layered and relayered with linoleum sheathing, its pineboard exterior inhumed with aluminum cladding..." That house is a metaphor for how we coat ourselves in protective layers and various guises as we make our way through life.
Where professional reviewers have used the word "corrosive" to describe the book I see it as insightful satire that leans towards the darker corners of life. In fact, no one is happy in this book so it was definitely off-putting. It lacked the hope found in Charles Dickens or the sweetness of Richard Russo both whose works remind of the scale Miles has attempted in Want Not. I was definitely impressed but not uplifted and ultimately the novel frustrates and trails off collapsing to a degree because of its weight and length.
Could memory be a choice? An old man who asks over and over for his dead wife’s phone number somehow perfectly recites Ozymandias; Shelley’s sonnet is embedded in his memory. Alzheimer’s has not claimed those 14 lines. Could recollections be like works of art? Magnificent ones hung “beneath metal halide lighting on stark museum walls, for daily straightening and dusting, while the shoddy ones were abandoned to attics, yard sales, to that unheeded space above the headboards in off-ramp motel rooms?” May we decide what we remember and what we don’t?
The central idea in WANT NOT, however, is the ridiculous nature of America and Americans as we produce, finagle for, discard, and constantly rummage and want for more. There are three separate story lines that begin on Thanksgiving 2008.
On East 4th Street in New York City, Talmadge, a canner and dumpster diver, is sifting through “the effluvia of the Key Food bakery department,” choosing Portuguese rolls and muffins for dinner. He takes the food to Micah, his lover and companion, a woman “like the cakey, crumbly, worm-turned soil that farmers scooped and lifted to their noses in the early spring,” an earth mother. They are squatters in an abandoned third-floor apartment dominated by Maybelle, a painting of a roly-poly nude lounging on her side, surrounded by fruits and vegetables. The rooms in which Micah and Talmadge are living, in deepest gaudy Manhattan, have no electricity.
Before Micah was born, her father witnessed a horrific car accident, and as a sort of absolution of faith, he believed he saw God in a landscape in Tennessee, 77 acres with not much access. The three lived in complete isolation for 10 years until the state government took her away for immunizations and education, and put her in a foster family (who were totally hung up on Hamburger Helper and could not understand her reluctance to eat it). She is forced to attend school where she is mortified, humiliated and taunted by the “locals.” Her mother disappears while her father is intent on repossessing his daughter; she is never seen again. Micah’s life has always been on the edge of living close to the bone, close to the land.
Meanwhile, on this same Thanksgiving in 2008, Elwin Cross, Jr., a prominent professor of linguistics at Marasmus State College, has hit a deer on Route 202, and were it not for the “two bottles of midrange Douro red” he drank with a friend whose despair surpassed his own, he would have left the animal alone. But he stuffs the dead deer into the back of his Jeep and takes it to his now-empty home (his wife Maury recently left him for a chef) where he hoists it on a fire escape rail to dress it. His neighbor’s son, a 22-year-old with zombie eyes who is also exceedingly drunk, joins him, in awe of Doc and his illegal activities. The two finish butchering the doe, and Elwin goes to bed watching the uninvited sunlight mark the walls of his bedroom.
And another meanwhile introduces Sara, who has gone to a storage facility in upstate New York to find a roasting pan. Her first husband, Brian, died in the 9/11 attack, and as she sorts through boxes and boxes of her former life, she remembers the infidelity that she discovered through pages of emails to his mistress. She was destroyed. Again. However, her second husband, Dave, is fabulously wealthy and has paid for breast augmentation and an exceedingly rich life for her and her daughter, Alexis. She leaves the storage unit and goes to Williams-Sonoma to buy the same All-Clad roaster she had packed away. Her life with Dave will never be her life with Brian, and for that, today, she is grateful.
Very much like pieces of steel being drawn slowly and inexorably toward a magnet, these three narratives move toward one another. And they meet. Don’t expect a Love Always wrap-up, but there will be recognition that even in the midst of glut and waste and abundance, the human spirit prevails.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs