Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Want Not: This Is A Near-Perfect Novel

I really, really loved this book. I mean, REALLY loved it. This is the one novel I've read this year that when I finished, my first reaction was to run out to the street corner to start preaching it. It's that good.

Why is it so good? Because it's exactly what fiction should be — it's clever, funny, totally engrossing, sobering, and dammit, if it doesn't give you a good attack of conscience. And the ending to this novel? Imagine the ending to the movie Requiem for a Dream, but on the page — it's about like that. It's good swift kick to the groin — but in a good, satisfying way (if that's possible) — a perfect conclusion both thematically and plot-wise to the novel.

The novel itself consists of three storylines that are related thematically, but don't seem to be related plot-wise until the very end. The theme is waste — you can almost hear the implied "waste not" from the famous maxim that would precede the title, right? The idea here is that greed leads to waste. We collect things (and people) that we don't need or necessarily even want, and we throw them away (people, too) just as easily.

One of the many strengths of this novel is its characters — the best (if least likeable) of which is Dave. Dave is skeezy middle-aged New Jerseyan who has gotten rich from a business he started that acquires debt at auction and then employs any means necessary to collect them. We first meet Dave on Thanksgiving Day as he's just taken what he considers to be a beautiful poop — so beautiful in fact, he snaps of photo with his camera phone, and later shows it to his teenage stepdaughter. Dave has very little scruples — he'll do whatever it takes to collect a debt, and he uses the proceeds to buy meaningless stuff, like fake boobs for his second wife Sara.

Then there's Elwin — a 54-year-old overweight linguistics professor whose wife has just left him. This has left him feeling discarded and sad. In our first scene with Elwin, he hits a deer with his car late at night, and decides to take it home and save the meat (waste not!) — with an assist from his young-20s neighbor Christopher, a Jersey Shore wannabe who is also one of the highlights of this novel. Elwin's father has Alzheimer's and Elwin struggles to comes to terms with the idea that all the memories his father has accumulated over his life are disappearing.

Finally, the third story is of Micah and Talmidge, a mid-20s couple who live off the grid in a squat apartment in Manhattan, and feed themselves from the waste of others — they basically dumpster diving to live from food that's discarded by restaurants and grocery stores. Things go south for the couple when Talmidge's college buddy Matty, just off a nine-month stint in jail for dealing drugs, comes to live with them. Micah's backstory is one of the more fascinating dozen or so page set-pieces in the novel — raised in rural Tennessee after her father had a religious vision. Now, the ideal of living independent of society (and gross consumerism, and its resulting waste) is what governs her life. And she's brought former frat-boy Talmidge along for the ride.

Throughout this novel, Miles is at his best when he veers into several-page set pieces on topics ranging from Dave's specific tactics for making collection calls to Elwin's father's memory of liberating a concentration camp during World War II. Miles is a spectacularly good writer — he's as good at cracking one-liners as he is stringing you along for a paragraph-length, stream-of-consciousness sentence.

So, to wrap up, if you only take one of my book recommendations all year, let it be this one. If you've read and enjoyed Jess Walter or Jonathan Tropper, you'll love this too — it's a similar style of writing, though I'd suggest that Miles might be even better. I cannot recommend this more highly. It's so, so good.


  1. I forgot about Dave taking a photo of his spectacularly brilliant poop. It was a great book. I think it will a lot of people's favorite for the year.

  2. Wow - what high praise! Though I'm kind of cringing from your descriptions of what some of the characters do - dumpster diving? Ew. (That can't be healthy?) and taking a picture of poop? Um... but I do have the novel and can already tell the writing is amazing. That's usually enough for me!

  3. I downloaded this when Rebecca Joines Schinsky raved about it on a Book Riot podcast, but your comparison to Tropper has bumped it up to the top of my TBR.

  4. Okay sounds quirky but will check it out. Quite a ringing endorsement.

  5. I like Jess Walter.... Should I take a chance on this book? Haven't read Jonathan Tropper yet despite the good reviews....

  6. I really, really loved this book. I mean, REALLY loved it. This is the one novel I've read this year that when I finished, my first reaction was to run out to the street corner to start preaching it. It's that good.