Want Not by Jonathan Miles

17464889This was a great book!  I enjoyed every minute of it.  The characters, the plot, the completely separate stories that connected at the end, but most of all I loved the writing.  The review I read of this book that made me decide to read it for myself was written by Leah at Books Speak Volumes.  Because I loved the writing so much, I’m going to use passages from the book to introduce you to all the wonderful characters.

First, we are introduced to Talmadge, who is living off the grid in NYC with his girlfriend, Micah.

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.

He wanted to say something to Crabtree – to tell him to pipe down, to stop laughing; that this was freakish, shit like this hardly ever happened; that the slop dished out at the burger chains along Third Avenue contained enough rat turds and body hair and pesticides and stray hormones and chemicals and various other effluvia to make a wadded-up condom seem as tasty as pizza cheese; that there was more at stake than just this, these two square inches of random spoilage, that we were gnawing the planet alive, all of us, that the entire mass-produce, mass dispose system was like some terrible, endgame buffalo hunt, a horror-show of unpicked carcasses, and that this – this tube of driveled semen, flicked mindlessly onto food enough to feed a family – was Exhibit A, an ideal example of our blindness, of our pampered disregard and twisted self-indulgence, of the great unconsidered flush that defined civilization – but Talmadge realized it would be futile.

Next, we meet Elwin (the most endearing character, in my opinion), a middle-aged linguist whose wife has recently left him and whose father has Alzheimer’s.

This had somehow gotten entirely out of hand – if at any point it was in hand, Elwin reminded himself.  Scooping the water in his cupped palms and lowering his face into its warmth, he wondered if this was the way lives crumbled: swiftly, within the flickering span of a night: one unfortunate, ill-considered decision leading to another, and then another, followed by another, until it was impossible to see where the logic had forked, where rationality had dissolved – until all traces of sense and sensibility were scrubbed clean, like the minor stars of the skies over New Jersey, and you were left with a mid-life professor attempting to explain, to a crowd of livid, orey-eyed neighbors wearing bathrobes and snowboots, and perhaps accompanied by a pair of cops, and maybe even by a graveyard-shift reporter mulling a Satanism angle, why Bambi’s pink-nippled mother was dangling from his fire escape at 2-something A.M., her eviscerated organs steaming inside a recycling bin.

How much easier it would be, he thought, if people were merely good or bad, as in comic books and television dramas, instead of suspended in the hoary in-between, goodbad creatures swerving from acts of valiant decency to craven negligence in the very same day/hour/minute.

Inside Elwin, however, something had clicked.  An odd squirt of dopamine, maybe, or perhaps something deeper: a mild eureka of the heart.  With every sale or gift he could feel his broken life dematerializing, its old scarred edifice crumbling, the invited looters fleeing with its junked remnants, and with that feeling came astonishing relief.

Everything is salvageable, he told himself, as he sank beneath the waves into the cool bruisy darkness and then, turning, began paddling toward their calls.  Even you.

Then we meet Sara (the most tragic character, I think.  Who would she have been if life hadn’t dealt her those blows?), the trophy wife of a macho debt-collector.

Her figure, short and supple, was not quite so natural – a point of mild discomfort.  Throughout her life she’d never minded her small breasts – dainty little knolls, no bigger than ice-cream scoops, that disappeared completely under the gentle compression of a sports bra.  Or at least she’d thought she’d never minded them.  Her husband, Dave, suggested otherwise: that a bit of surgical augmentation (“nothing ridiculous”, and his Valentine’s Day gift to her) would provide an incommensurate boost to her self-esteem.  Eight months later, she still wasn’t used to them.

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.

In those tormented days after Brian’s death and Sara’s discovery of his affair she’d felt something go dead inside her, felt something shrivel and dry as a grape becomes a raisin.  Or maybe that wasn’t right – it was accurate to say she felt something disappear, as though Jane L. Becker had reached inside her and snatched it away.

How obscene and astonishing it was, she thought, that amidst all this digital plenty, there could still be nothing.

Here is Sara’s 2nd husband, Dave (this quote will give you a pretty good sense of his character).

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.  Not even the Cashomatic Pay-Day eLoans deal, which he and his partner had scored a $1.3 million debt portfolio for $12,750 in a bankruptcy auction  and started clearing a profit on it within two hours.  But no, that was business, while this – this might be art.  Suspended in the toilet was what could only be called the perfect turd, the turd a man might aspire to produce his entire life but despite daily attempts never achieve…

Micah is introduced as the driving force behind the lifestyle Talmadge now finds himself (willingly) living.

“Civilization is like, like some drug that we can’t get enough of, can’t resist, that we’re helpless without.  But producing that drug requires the systematic destruction of the planet.  Every ounce of civilization requires, like, a hundred pounds of soil and air and water, and then generates, like, fifty pounds of waste.  The math doesn’t work, right?  It’s simple.  At the end of the equation there’s nothing but waste”.

She wanted a baby.  There: that was it, she’d said it, and the ridiculousness of it – the reversal – almost caused her to laugh aloud.  For years she’d sneered at “breeders”, lambasting them for their egomaniacal, acquisitive desire to slather more of themselves upon the earth, overpopulation be damned.

Matty is the house guest of Talmadge and Micah, an old friend of Talmadge from his life before Micah.

What was in there?  Garbage was in there.  And as much as he dug what Tal and Micah were doing, how they’d engineered this whole presto-chango disappering act from society, how they were giving a righteous middle finger to the whole capitalist grind, living pure and all that shit, still… garbage was garbage, man, it was tampons and diapers and smeary pink meat wrappers and chicken bones and cat litter and scratched CDs and dull razors and expired coupons and ballpoint pens that didn’t work anymore.

Alexis, Sara’s daughter from her first marriage.

She added a jar of Tylenol to her basket, thinking she might actually need that.  She felt the fluorescent buzz heightening, as if the light tubes were straining under some gaseous pressure and would soon explode, one after the other, showering hot yellow sparks onto the floor and maybe easing this whole situation by killing her.

Dr. Elwin Cross Sr., Elwin’s father in the nursing home, writing his masterwork.

This was, of course, a bunch of baloney.  Dr. Cross didn’t like lying down, never had.  Sleep just left your thoughts unsupervised, a terrible danger.  He did, however like bologna, which reminded him – well, it reminded him of something, but something that couldn’t possibly matter at the moment…

And last, but not least, Elwin’s young neighbour, Christopher.

“Free to good home,” went the imaginary ad.  “21-Year-Old central N.J. refugee.  Leaves towels on bathroom floor, flushes toilet approximately 10% of time, skilled in the use of all machinery except for ‘too ****ing complicated’ laundry machines.  Will force you to watch allegedly hilarious YouTube videos in which young men light farts or animals hump inanimate objects.  Excellent way of ensuring beerless fridge & ridiculously tricked-out car.  No phone inquiries, please.”

Whether or not these different storylines ever connect in some way at the end (which they do, very subtly), didn’t even matter to me.  I just enjoyed reading about all these fantastic characters and their lives and thoughts that seemed so real.  The author gets everything bang on, and makes you sad to see their stories end.  I highly recommend this book!

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6 thoughts on “Want Not by Jonathan Miles

  1. Rory says:

    I only skimmed your review because I’ll be reading it shortly. But I’m glad to know that – bottom line – you thought this one was good!

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