The Short Version: Kicking off at Thanksgiving 2008, three storylines (a freegan couple off-the-grid in NYC, a linguist having a mid-life crisis in the wake of his marriage’s dissolution, and an unhappy family in the New Jersey suburbs) begin a year that will lead them to a brief but life-altering intersection.
The Review: Consumption. It’s a problem around the world but particularly in this country. If this book were a Dave Matthews Band song (hang on, I’ll explain), it might be “Too Much”: concerned with our culture of greed and consumption but addressing it in the most banal, middle-of-the-road way as though that’s going to solve anything. And just like DMB provides reliable (if often not all that exceptional) entertainment for a particular large swath of music listeners, so too does a novel like Want Not provide for the readers of the world. You know who I bet loves this book? Middle-aged liberal white men, the ones who read above the national average but also secretly prefer watching TV to reading. This book is suburbia in print form.
The thing is, it doesn’t start out that way. In fact, it opens with one of the more compelling first chapters I’ve read in a long while, coming in over the shoulder of (the ridiculously named) Talmadge Bertrand as he digs into trash bags outside the Key Food on Avenue A and engages with a few other members of the New York City periphery. The writing is playful and the concept of freeganism, while terrifying to me on a personal level, is something I’d be fascinated to read about. Coupled with the fact that the book opens on Thanksgiving Day 2008 and I was reading it on Thanksgiving Day 2015, I felt like I was going to enjoy it.
But as the second chapter opened, featuring a self-proclaimed morbidly-obese middle-aged linguist named Elwin who hits a deer coming back from a night out and then decides to bring it home and skin & butcher it. And my stomach began to drop. Elwin, clearly having a midlife crisis (can’t you tell? He hit a deer and then decided to bring it home!), is an entirely uncompelling character. He represents the physical manifestation of Miles’ target in this book but his character arc goes nowhere. I found myself starting to skim through his chapters because I assumed (quite rightly) that they would not deliver any pertinent information to me about the overall story. One tidbit, delivered not from Elwin’s point of view but from that of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, connects to the freegan couple in the way that makes the reader thing everything is suddenly going to connect in a Love Actually serendipity way – but when that connection and one other end up being all she wrote, again the reader is left feeling rather put out.
The third storyline in the novel, while predictable, is also at least compelling at times – although it also commits the uncomfortable sin of 9/11 memorialization in place of character building. A woman’s husband died in the World Trade Center just as she discovered that he’d been cheating on her. She remarries a(nother) boor who makes her get breast implants, her daughter is rebelling, and the boor enters the novel astounded by a perfectly coiled shit he’s just taken. I went to school (grade and college) with guys who took pictures of so-called “perfect shits” and, it’s true, that’s about the best thing they’ll ever create. I didn’t want to hang out with them then and, unsurprisingly, I was irritated by Dave too. But Alexis, the daughter, provides the compelling spark: she pulls a Peggy Olson and her final chapter, as reality catches up to her in her college dorm, is perhaps the best writing in the whole book.
But as that chapter (and the book itself) wound down, I found myself wondering what the hell the point was. Every single character squanders any initial interest/goodwill established in the reader not by just being annoying but by being constructs. Miles has created three storylines addressing roughly the same thing – the fact that American society isn’t focused on the things that matter (like family and friends) but instead on getting MORE MORE MORE – and then loosely tied them together at the end… but I left the book and promptly stopped thinking about it. The message, which would appear to be oh-so-important if you’re writing a book about it (and, I should say, I do genuinely believe in the importance of the message), seems irrelevant or like Miles had the good idea and then sort of phoned it in, happy to get a B/B- on this one because he did just enough work for the average book-reader to ostensibly feel good about themselves after reading this one.
Don’t be fooled. Like a ghost estate, there’s a fair amount of beautiful scenery here (Miles does have a flair at the sentence level) but absolutely nothing living behind the scenes – and the book is itself a symptom of our culture’s irrationally held belief that everyone deserves everything that they want. Mr. Miles, if you want to talk about a big issue, try harder – otherwise, you’re just taking up space.
Rating: 2 out of 5. There are points where I engaged deeply, either on a sentence level or because I was fascinated. But much of the book is unnecessary flashbacks or unnecessary authorial-intervention-as-plot-development and I could’ve done without the entirety of the Elwin chapters. Consumption is a big issue, as American society gets fatter in every age and income bracket – and there’s no better time to think about that than when preparing to glut yourself at Thanksgiving. But this isn’t the book to spark the conversation. It’s just another high-calorie, low-nutrition, ultimately tasteless dessert somebody brought that you’ll eat anyway and then feel a little bad about… before going and getting something else.