Community Reads March 12, 2014
Want Not by Jonathan Miles
First, I have to say this; I am very opinionated and when I get in a room with others I like to lay down the law (as it holds court with my point of view). This usually works when discussing books but alas, during the last ‘Community Reads’ book club meeting the author showed up. So for the discussion centered on Jonathan Miles’s book (Want Not) I couldn’t bring my point of view front and center. In fact, my entire ego sank down to the level of my shoes as I heard first hand exactly what he meant when he wrote ‘What John Rye had done wrong, Micah would do right.’
Seriously; it was with extreme pleasure the ‘Community Reads’ book club was able to discuss Want Not with the author. And, I have to say, I really enjoyed the read (and the discussion). Want Not is different in its delivery from most books and that alone, the uniqueness, gave it value. It reminded me very much of an art-house movie where the theme is interconnected more than the characters themselves and, Jonathan Miles can write.
“Want Not” has a message — the balance between ‘waste not / want not’ no longer seems to register with people. The entire concept of civilization in the throes of waste, decay and pollution, discarding items as soon as the label ‘possession’ is upon them is evident. And, by painting civilization as a whole begs the question, is there salvation?
This brings us to the characters: An abandoned professor of dead languages (Dr. Elwin Cross), AND his neighbor’s wayward son, AND a young couple (Micah and Talmadge) living off the grid and off the detritus of super-consumers like Sara and Dave, AND Sara’s daughter Alexis. AND Elwin’s dying father (Dr. Cross, Senior), AND Matty, Talmadge’s old buddy, who crashes in on him and Micah (when he gets out of prison). It seems too much, too many, and as I mentioned above, there is very little interconnection. Jonathan alternates his delivery between the various characters, their current situations and, of course, their back stories until he is (what seems to me) to be almost three quarters through the book. I have to say, I worried a little, but the writing itself kept me glued. I actually appreciate the honest descriptions of people and how they interact and more importantly, why they interact so … I read on.
What kept me going, the back stories, the paining of the lives which brings the people off the page and into the three dimensional space in which we live. For example, we follow Micah back through her strange and idyllic upbringing in Appalachia to her revelatory trip in India. Micah and all the others grow into, well into people and you can love ‘em or hate ‘em but either way you have to appreciate what the artist has constructed. After this, the character connections begin to emerge though, they are quick, very quick and very sharp. The young Alexis (high school student preparing for college) grapples with a personal struggle which she keeps to herself and all we can do is hope for the best because what people want is not always what they get especially if there is waste involved. Luckily, sometimes salvation is not understood and emerges from the least likely of places.
The message to refrain from waste is brought home by Dr. Cross (junior) too. He is struggling through his divorce when an academic task comes floating his way. He is to help an assembled team of experts (what is an expert but a matter of opinion?) to help craft a warning for future generations (or space aliens) of the untouchable danger beneath (radioactive waste). This is the Waste Isolation Project Markers, and it gives Jonathan a platform on which to discuss the long range forecast for us members of the human race.
My favorite part of the book, I must confess, is when the Alzheimer riddled Dr. Cross senior remembers back and we are treated, really treated, to an analysis of the events which shaped his life. To move from Dr. Cross’s remembrances of concentration camps in Germany to Dumpster-diving outside the hospice in NYC to a Yankees game to discussions of radioactive decay rates is not easy. How does he do it? As I said, the man can write.
Waste Not Want Not, I feel is the underlying message. The more we want, the more we waste and as Dr. Cross’s team is attempting to put together the waste management signage, it won’t even be readable in the ages to come.