By Leah Greenblatt
Updated November 06, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

We are, as we’ve been told a thousand times by righteous gastronomes and nagging moms, what we eat. But what if the stuff we throw away says even more about us?

”People forget, they cover, they kid themselves, they lie. But their trash always tells the truth,” begins the first of three waste-themed epigraphs in Jonathan Miles’ (Dear American Airlines) shrewd, funny, and sometimes devastating new novel. Want Not opens in a pile of garbage, literally, with twentysomething freegan Talmadge rooting through curbside throwaways for day-old pastries and ”the pleasant dumpy squish that meant produce” to bring home to his dreadlocked, dogma-spouting girlfriend in their Lower East Side squat. What’s less clear at first is what Want‘s other characters — including a morbidly obese linguist in the throes of a midlife crisis, a professor suffering from dementia, and a 9/11 widow increasingly estranged from her angry teenage daughter and oafish second husband — have to do with these Dumpster-diving idealists. Until nearly 300 pages in, they seem no more linked by their New York metro-area geography than the occupants of a random subway car.

But of course, this being a particularly clever and well-built kind of fiction, Miles does connect them. (And of course, it’s for him, not us, to reveal how.) It’s easy to admire how nimbly — if not exactly surprisingly — he stitches it together. What Want Not does best, though, isn’t plotting but portraits of humanity: the small epiphanies and private hurts of every person whose life, like the detritus they produce, is as beautifully mundane and unique as a fingerprint. A-