At the outset of "Want Not," the second novel by Jonathan Miles ("Dear American Airlines"), a freegan named Talmadge is rooting around for treasure in other people's trash. The snow-dusted garbage bags, heaped on a Manhattan sidewalk, appear to him as "alpine peaks in the moonlight." He's stoned, admittedly, but it's not a weed-influenced vision — more the usual "associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain." Tal is a self-confessed "inveterate analogizer," who can't help but see the world as "a matrix of interconnected references in which everything (is) related to everything else."
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This sums up Miles' narrative style too. In "Want Not," the former New York Times columnist follows disparate characters — chiefly, Tal and his dreadlocked girlfriend, Micah, both living off the grid; a lonely and adrift middle-aged linguist named Elwin; a smug New Jersey debt collector, Dave, with a strained relationship to his family. Together with others in their orbit, they form a matrix of wants, including the desire for material things as well as deeper longings unmet by the tangible. For most of the dense novel, their story lines aren't bound by shared circumstances but stitched together with ideological threads — overlapping themes of ownership, excess, environmentalism, aging, survival, isolation, belonging and the legacies we leave.
Waste is the unifying theme. For Talmadge and Micah — the hippie couple who met at Burning Man and are pro dumpster divers in New York City — there's really no such thing. Where others see trash in wilted spinach, hardened challah and discarded clothes, they see resources: an opportunity to avoid participation in the mass-produce, mass-dispose system that rules — and threatens to wreck — civilization.
"It's about shunning commodity culture," Micah explains to one of Talmadge's college buddies over a Thanksgiving meal, hosted in their squat, of foraged food cooked on a homemade penny stove. "The amount of waste this society generates, it's enough to feed and clothe and sustain entire other countries." Raised off the grid, Micah strictly follows this lifestyle, and Talmadge, rejecting his shiny, privileged upbringing, follows suit. But the reappearance of said college friend at Thanksgiving dinner — which, for many Americans, is a meal about indulgence and excess — threatens to mire their mindful existence.
When we first meet Elwin — overweight, recently separated from his wife — he has just hit a deer with his Jeep Cherokee. He's "wine-rumpled," has "been drinking too much lately — sloppily, stupidly." Impulsively, he hauls the doe home to salvage the meat. While Elwin is passionate about the roadkill not going to waste, he suspects that he might be squandering his own life through a series of unfortunate situations and stupid choices.
His Alzheimer's-afflicted father lives in a nursing home that Elwin describes as a "human junkyard"; his wife, Maura, cheated on him with a chef, "ending civilization as he knew it," but, more cataclysmically, ruining his enjoyment of eating in restaurants. "The world is casting me aside, it's burying me," Elwin thinks, after a melancholy visit to his dad on Thanksgiving. As a scholar of applied linguistics, he studies dead languages but spends much of his time fearing his own obsolescence. It's not until he's tapped to contribute to a humanitarian project — related to stopping future generations from using a waste isolation plant — that he begins to discover a new sense of purpose.
The waste analogies run deep in "Want Not," but occasionally they're more, well, shallow. Dave, the cocksure debt collector — proud that his business is "ka-chinging in (a) weakening economy" — is so enamored of his "perfect" post-Thanksgiving bowel movement that he snaps a photo of it on his cellphone. What becomes apparent, though, is that he desires meaningful recognition, the kind that can't be won by touting his status or even poop pictures.
A few chapters into the novel — even two-thirds of the way through — you may wonder if the strikingly different plot lines ever intersect, beyond sharing overarching themes of waste and want. You may wonder if, in writing about excess, an author might grant himself permission to pile on characters, settings, minute details and big ideas, until what remains is an unwieldy heap of a novel whose central meaning is buried or obscured.
While Miles certainly indulges tangents — an entire chapter on a stink bug comes to mind — he does ultimately steer "Want Not" toward a thought-provoking, well-considered conclusion — one that engages the book's biblical epigraph from Matthew 26:8, "To what purpose is this waste?" Miles' riveting storytelling, rambling though it may be in spots, ensures that investing in these characters isn't a waste.
Laura Pearson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in arts and culture reporting.
By Jonathan Miles, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 389 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, CT Now