Before you gird your loins and stuff your birds for Thanksgiving, spend some highly rewarding hours with all the trash and waste in Jonathan Miles’s new novel, “Want Not.”
From three vastly different U.S. households emerge three seemingly unrelated stories that show no sign of connecting for hundreds of pages. Yet Miles floats so much jetsam on the garbage theme that even readers who prefer sailing along on a linear plot won’t be at sea for long.
There’s trash seen from a New Jersey commuter train, thrown from a train in India and flung from a car by a 102-year-old Pomo Indian who’s supposed to revere the land. People dig through trash for food and recycle it for money and seek ways to store it when their excess overwhelms them.
It’s classical: “We came, we saw, we trashed,” one character thinks.
It’s ecological: “We were gnawing the planet alive ... The entire mass-produce, mass-dispose system was like some terrible endgame buffalo hunt, a horrow-show of unpicked carcasses.”
And it’s echoic: “Garbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced” reverberates more than hundred pages later with: “Garbage was the only pure crop that civilization produced.”
Miles’s first novel, “Dear American Airlines,” voiced the desperate search for redemption of an alcoholic failed poet who dissects his fall and shares his rue within a comic rant against the carrier that has stranded him at O’Hare.
“Want Not” begins on Thanksgiving Day 2007, with Talmadge Bertrand, a young man searching the trash bags outside a Manhattan food store for sweet potatoes to accompany the evening’s meal. Nearby street people are feeding bottle-redemption machines for small change. Tal is trying to exist off the grid in an abandoned building with Micah, a woman who follows the creed of Freeganism (living as much as possible on what she can get free).
About 40 miles west in the New Jersey suburbs, a linguistics professor crams the deer he’s just road-killed into the trunk of his murderous Jeep. He’ll eat and share the meat and think often of his obesity, his recently busted marriage and a project to craft a warning system that will be understandable for the 10,000 years of poisonous potential in a New Mexico nuclear-waste depository.
Elsewhere in the Garden State, a housewife enters her rented unit in the LifeSolutions 24-Hour Self-Storage to search through piles of saved cast-offs for a roasting pan. Her marriage is rocky, her daughter a challenge, her husband, Dave, a successful specialist in “junk debt collection.”
The moment we first meet him, though, Dave is infatuated with the ultimate human waste: “An hour after eating Thanksgiving dinner, Dave Masoli was staring into the toilet with wide-eyed awe and admiration. He couldn’t recall ever making anything so beautiful as this in his life.”
While Miles doesn’t fully resolve any of these narratives, his writing is so compulsively creative you may be too exhausted to miss neat wrap-ups. Riffs, lists, digressions, backstories constantly color outside the lines of each scant plot. It’s a relief and a delight when a larger life-and-death motif behind our wasteful ways finds expression in telling parallels and confluence.
So it is with a young woman’s many hasty drugstore selections, all meant to camouflage her sole desire, a pregnancy-test kit. Later a drugstore basket is filled by a woman suddenly caring for a newborn.
Dave stares in wonder at his giant turd; a woman in an unlit loo shines “a flashlight down between her legs into the bowl” to see evidence of her miscarriage.
So too it can’t be an accident that an old Alzheimer’s-afflicted historian specializing in genocide has one of the book’s telling lines, about the New Mexico project:
“‘All the terrible effort of human civilization, the great big arc of it. And in ten thousand years the only intelligible trace of it might be your ``keep out'' sign in the desert, stuck in a big heap of trash.’”
“Want Not” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (389 pages, $26). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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