'Want Not': Laughter and tears meld in Jonathan Miles' heartbreaking second novel

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"Want Not," the sophomore effort of Jonathan Miles, author of the much-praised comic rant of a novel "Dear American Airlines," does not disappoint. "Want Not" leaps nimbly from topic to topic, each sentence providing a miniature window into its author's energetic and wide-ranging mind: from freeganism to conspicuous consumption; from Manhattan's Alphabet City to residential New Jersey to the backwoods of Tennessee; and from neighbors with nothing but geographical location in common to sisters who share nothing but blood.

This constant zigzagging from subject to subject and character to character could be, in lesser hands, dizzying and haphazard, but Mr. Miles pulls it off with elan.

By Jonathan Miles.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($26).

Sitting down with "Want Not" is like finding yourself opposite the most interesting person at a dinner party. It pulls you in immediately; makes you shake your head in wonder and delight at your new companion's wit, originality, and compelling turns of phrase; and, best of all, surprises you into laughter.

But "Want Not" isn't merely entertaining -- Much like that same party guest after a couple of cups of coffee, the book has a more sober register: it can jolt you into pain just as easily as laughter. Mr. Miles has conjured a diverse and multi-layered cast of characters, including a young couple living off the grid in downtown Manhattan; a childless middle-aged linguistics professor, unhappily separated from his wife, caring for his ailing father and reckoning with his own mortality.

There's the professor's historian father, who is battling time and Alzheimer's in hopes of finishing his master work; a former actress whose first husband, a stockbroker, died on 9/11; her spoiled, miserable teenage daughter; her second husband, a Republican-voting debt collector with a well-hidden sensitive side and an unsavory soft spot for his difficult stepdaughter; and an aimless, loveless young man with an abusive bully of a father.

Mr. Miles' greatest strength is his ability to create finely textured characters, whose idiosyncrasies are revealed in deceptively digressive sentences. Taking us inside the mind of Sara, the former actress -- a shallow, venal woman, at first glance -- Mr. Miles writes: " 'Honey,' she said to herself, in the weirdly over-colloquial and vaguely black/Southern voice she often used when addressing herself in moments of indecision, as if equipping herself with her own personal Oprah, 'you can bail on this.' "

In a single sentence, the character is granted depth, the reader is amused, and a lasting impression is formed: Sara may be money-hungry, phony and vain, but she is also in need of comfort and sustenance.

Each portrait feels specific and precise, and each character's inner life is revealed gradually, in small, deft, strokes. Of one character, Mr. Miles writes, "Elwin was fond of his insurance agent (she was the only person who sent him a birthday card every year)." Pondering his father's advancing Alzheimer's, lonely Elwin wonders "if there was a kind of dark bliss built into dementia: an immunity from death and abandonment, a way of fixing a point in time so that nothing can change, nothing can be rewritten, no one can leave."

Earlier in the novel, while sponging the grime off of her soon-to-be boyfriend after he survives a bad drug trip in the desert, another character feels "as if she wasn't so much washing a man as creating one." Miles' characters feel as if they're being revealed in the opposite manner; it's as if they've existed, somewhere, all along, and he's just sponging them off so we can see them.

As in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and "On Beauty," Mr. Miles' characters' lives increasingly intersect as the narrative progresses. There are fewer of these intersections in Mr. Miles' novel than in Ms. Smith's, but their consequences are serious and profound: babies, children, and young adults are lost and found; surrogate children are united with surrogate parents; and, while everything doesn't exactly work out in the end, each character winds up on a path that feels organic and true.

The underlying theme of "Want Not," a book glutted with fascinating ideas, is human mortality. What is life for? How can we be happy? How can we be good? Is it possible to be both? And, arguably, the biggest question of all: If we're going to die, then what's the point of it all?

Jonathan Miles doesn't have any more or better answers to these questions than the rest of us, but he's written a novel of uncommon grace and beauty in an attempt to find them out.

Raina Lipsitz (rainalipsitz@gmail.com) writes/edits short stories at ImaginaryMoney.com.

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