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With his critically acclaimed first novel, Jonathan Miles was widely praised as a comic genius "after something bigger" (Los Angeles Times) whose fiction was "not just philosophically but emotionally rewarding" (New York Times Book Review).
Now, in his much anticipated second novel, Want Not, Miles takes a giant leap forward with this highly inventive and corrosively funny story of our times, a three-pronged tale of human excess that sifts through the detritus of several disparate lives - lost loves, blown chances, countless words and deeds misdirected or misunderstood - all conjoined in their come-hell-or-high-water search for fulfillment.
As the novel opens on Thanksgiving Day, readers are telescoped into 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.
With a satirist's eye and a romantic's heart, Miles captures the morass and comedy of contemporary life in all its excess. Bold, unblinking, unforgettable in its irony and pathos, Want Not is a wicked, bighearted literary novel that confirms the arrival of a major voice in American fiction.
All but one of the black trash bags, heaped curbside on East 4th Street, were tufted with fresh snow, and looked, to Talmadge, like alpine peaks in the moonlight, or at least what he, a lifetime flatlander, thought alpine peaks might look like if bathed in moonglow and (upon further reflection) composed of slabs of low-density polyethylene. Admittedly, his mental faculties were still under the vigorous sway of the half gram of Sonoma County Sour Diesel he'd smoked a half hour earlier, but still: Mountains. Definitely. When he brushed the snow off the topmost bag and untied the knot at its summit, he felt like a god disassembling the Earth.
Micah would surely object to this analogythe problem with dudes, he could hear her saying, is that y'all can't even open a freaking trash bag without wanting to be some kind of god subjugating the planetbefore needling him for making any analogy at all. "You're, like, the only person in the world who overuses the word 'like' the way it's actually meant to be used," she'd once told him. Which was true: He was an inveterate analogizer who couldn't help viewing the world as a matrix of interconnected references in which everything was related to everything else through the associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain. Back in college he'd read that this trait was an indicator of genius or perhaps merely advanced intelligence, and while this had pleased him, he was also aware, darkly, that he'd inherited the trait directly from his Uncle Lenord, which wasn't a DNA strand he longed to advertise. Uncle Lenord, who repaired riding mowers and weedwhackers and various other small-engine whatnots out of his carport in Wiggins, Mississippi, was a fount of cracker-barrel simileshotter'n two foxes fucking in a forest fire; wound up tighter'n an eight-day clock; drunk as a bicycle; spicier'n a goat's ass in a pepper patchbut no one had ever accused him of genius-level or even advanced thinking. Frankly no one had ever accused him of any thinking whatsoever, with the possible exception of the girlfriend of one of Talmadge's Ole Miss fraternity brothers. She'd interviewed Lenord for a Southern Studies 202 term paper about the effects of clear-cut logging on rural communities, so presumablysince the girlfriend scored a B-plus on the paperLenord had been forced to think at least once. He debriefed Talmadge on the interview a few weeks later, when Talmadge was home for Christmas break. "Girl had titties out to here," Lenord confided. "Woulda jumped on that ass like a duck on a Junebug."
With a gloved hand Talmadge sifted through the bag's contents: donuts, Portuguese rolls, kaiser rolls, bagels, cookies, cream horns, Swiss rolls, challah, and muffins. The effluvia of the Key Food bakery department, most of it edible but none of it salable, discharged to the curb. He transferred two of the Portuguese rolls and two pistachio muffins into the burlap satchel he wore messenger-style on his shoulder, and then, remembering that Matty was coming to dinner, added another roll and muffin to the bag. Then one more Portuguese roll, and on second thought another, because he remembered that Matty ate like a pulpwood hauler.
The cream horns were fatally smooshed; otherwise he would've taken three or four. Weed gave him a monumental sweet tooth. He considered the cookies but they were nestled in a wad of paper towels drenched in something blueWindex, he guessed. The challah was hard as seasoned firewood, and should have, he noted critically, been thrown out the day before. Ditto the bagels, though he didn't care about them, since day-old bagels were his easiest prey. Unger's over on Avenue B had the best ones anyway, and Mr. Ungertesty, fat-jowled, an aproned old relic from the bygone Lower East Sideput out two or three full bags of them nightly. The only problem with those was Mr. Unger himself, who would sometimes charge out of the store to demand payment. Talmadge was always quick to skedaddle but Micah relished the fight. "They're trash," she'd say. "They're my trash," he'd reply. And so on and so forth until Mr. Unger would fling up his arms and shout, "Freeloaders! Freeloaders!" The whole exchange was avoidable since there was a two-hour window between the time that Mr. Unger locked the shop, at seven, and when the Department of Sanitation trucks rolled up at nine, during which time the bagels were free for the loading, but Micah operated on her own narrow termsangry fat-jowled relics be damned.
Excerpted from Want Not by Jonathan Miles. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Miles. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
"Waste not, want not" goes the aphorism, and Jonathan Miles's second novel explores both themes to their fullest extent: the concept of waste from lives spent profligately to garbage and excrement and ordinary people's conflicting desires. In three interlocking story lines, Miles looks for what is really of human value at a time when everything seems disposable and possessions both material and digital can exert a dispiriting tyranny.
As the novel opens in 2007, Thanksgiving finds New York City buried under an early snowstorm. The nation's annual excuse for gluttony makes a perfect metaphorical setting for Miles's exposé of food waste and consumerist excess. Even this time of feasting has a dark side, with Talmadge Bertrand, the first of three main characters, rummaging in trash bags outside Key Foods for edible pastries and produce. This scrounging lifestyle might be inevitable for local hobos and addicts, but it is a choice for him: he and his hippie girlfriend Micah are militant freegans, determined to opt out of the capitalist system by squatting and getting food and clothing free from what others throw away.
The second protagonist is Elwin Cross, Jr., an obese linguistics professor whose wife recently left him. Driving back to New Jersey after a drunken meal with a similarly heartbroken colleague, he hits a deer and, rather than waste all that meat, decides to take it home to butcher for Thanksgiving dinner. Processing the carcass and simultaneously getting rid of all traces of his ex-wife become twin obsessions for Elwin, as he advertises most of his belongings on Craigslist. "What do I do with all this stuff?" he asks himself as he tackles his father's nursing home room a question that takes on a more global significance when Elwin joins an interdisciplinary panel on nuclear waste management.
In the novel's third strand, readers meet Sara Tetwick Masoli, a 9/11 widow whose memories are embodied in stacks of possessions housed at "Lifesolutions 24-hour self-storage." Sara is now remarried to Dave, an odious debt collector whose raunchiness allows for a jokey relationship with his troubled stepdaughter, Alexis. For nearly seven years Sara has paid $59 a month to hold onto all these extra things that remind her of her deceased first husband; perhaps it is finally time to, as Elwin also attempts, break the tyranny of stuff.
Despite his gently satirical tone, Miles creates sympathy for even his more obnoxious characters through flashbacks filling in everyone's backstory. Micah appears less self-righteous once we learn about her childhood living in hyper-religious, backwoods Tennessee. Likewise, Elwin Sr. is not just an Alzheimer's sufferer but an illustrious professor of genocide studies who liberated a concentration camp. Even Dave, who is likely to disgust readers by photographing his Updikean perfect bowel movement (a scatological moment bringing in yet another connotation of "waste" for Miles to exploit), is still a three-dimensional character who struggles with feelings of emptiness and tries to suppress his lust for Alexis. Want not, indeed.
The disjuncture between what the characters desire and what they achieve is a continual source of irony. "You can't desire what's freakin impossible," Elwin's neighbor argues, to which Elwin replies, "Of course you can. That's all I ever do. That's all anyone does." Miles makes it clear that living in the modern world requires constant ethical compromises. All the characters, in their various ways, must find a balance between retreating from the world in frustration or despair, and engaging with the world hopefully. "We all got our wants," as a homeless man says to Dave, but the challenge is to find where those wants intersect with the common good.
A Yankees game provides a meeting point for the novel's three plot lines, though, admittedly, a somewhat tenuous one. Less important than these specific characters' interactions, however, is the thoroughness with which Miles exhibits myriad aspects of waste and want, both physical and psychological. His composite picture of modern New York is complete and convincing in itself, but also universal in its application. Never veering too close to polemic, Miles succeeds in revealing how meaningless modern lives of material and technological consumption can be: "How obscene and astonishing," Sara thinks, "that amidst all this digital plenty, there could still be nothing." On the other hand, he also counters the extreme anti-humanism of Elwin, Sr.'s theory of genocide, which posits that it has been an essential tool whereby civilizations limit population, thus minimizing conflict over resources. That way lies atrocity.
Want Not affirms the validity of human stories in spite of the seemingly overwhelming problem of wastefulness. What we waste, what we create accidentally, what we accumulate: these can all form a sort of physical legacy; "Historically speaking, we are what we bury," a colleague convinces Elwin. Yet like the text on the nuclear waste memorial that Elwin helps to design, this errant consumerism should stand as a warning to future generations: "NOTHING IS VALUED HERE...THE DANGER IS STILL PRESENT, IN YOUR TIME AS IN OURS." Like Miles's characters, readers must recognize that true value is based not in what we hoard or what we throw away, but in the ties we form in life.
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Food waste, one of the key issues underlying Jonathan Miles's Want Not, is a problem that is beginning to draw more attention worldwide. Every year American households and retailers throw away 40 million tons of usable food. In early 2013 the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers issued a report, entitled "Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not," which estimated that 30-50% of food produced worldwide goes to waste. This is due to a combination of factors including supermarkets' strict aesthetic standards for produce, restaurants' super-sized portions, consumers buying more than they need or not using food in time (often spurred by buy-one-get-one-free deals), and inefficient methods of food harvesting and transportation in developing nations. Compounding the food loss itself is the waste of land, water, and energy used to grow and process it.
Meanwhile, over 1 billion people (many of them in Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa) are malnourished. Yet, as Tristram Stuart reveals in his book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (and on his website), just one quarter of the food regularly wasted in the United States and Europe would solve world hunger. Stuart has also headed "The Pig Idea," encouraging the UK government to feed food waste to livestock. Many food campaigners and restaurateurs have joined him in pushing for a change in European law to allow food waste to be given to pigs, a common practice outlawed in 2001, after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was traced to a farm that was illegally feeding its pigs unprocessed restaurant food waste. Leftovers from food manufacturing, such as whey from cheese-making, can still be used. (By contrast, sending food waste to pigs is mandatory in some Asian countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.) Stuart predicts that feeding waste to livestock could be up to 20 times more carbon-efficient than the current British strategy of sending it for anaerobic digestion (a form of renewable energy).
The UK charity FareShare saves over 3,800 tons of food annually, ensuring that it goes to nourish those who need it most, via homeless hostels, school breakfast clubs, and drug rehabilitation programs. Food Cowboy launched in 2012, connects American food producers with food charities. Using smartphone technology, truckers learn about unwanted food and deliver it to rescue groups or to farmers for composting. CropMobster also finds uses for excess food, usually through message boards where producers can advertise free or discounted goods. Although federal tax credit is given for anti-waste schemes, some retailers are still wary, worrying they could be sued if rotten food ever makes people sick. A recent NPR report profiled Food Cowboy and other startup companies tackling food waste in different parts of America.
While this is the big picture, what small steps can all of us take to reduce food waste and work toward better food distribution? First of all, we can resist the urge to buy more food than we can use, whether in restaurants or supermarkets. The Global Food Banking Network can put you in touch with food banks that accept surplus food and distribute it both nationally and internationally. Organizations such as Solid Ground in Seattle carry out community harvests so unwanted, ripe fruit can be donated.
You don't have to go to the extremes of the characters in Want Not (one of whom is nearly crushed in a trash compactor while rescuing some perfectly good steaks from a supermarket dumpster) to opt out of the current system that tells you to obey expiration dates slavishly and buy only the nicest-looking produce. Meanwhile, here's some good news from the UK: avoidable food waste decreased by 21% between 2007 and 2012 (according to Love Food, Hate Waste). The tactics discussed above can really work, and we can all participate in the solution.
Picture of food waste from Flickr.com. Author, Taz
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