Everyone poops

November 11, 2013
"Want Not," by Jonathan Miles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“Want Not,” by Jonathan Miles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

After enduring the “talking excrement” in “The Corrections” and the bathroom disaster in “Freedom,” you might have hoped Jonathan Franzen had exhausted the possibilities of poo in literary fiction.

Well, flush that thought from your mind. Another Jonathan is back on the pot. In Jonathan Miles’s new comic novel, “Want Not,” we meet an obnoxious debt collector on Thanksgiving Day. He rises from the toilet “with wide-eyed awe and admiration” and takes a photo of his “perfect turd.”

It’s an outrageously funny bit of scatological humor that tells us just about all we want to know about this creep, and it’s mercifully shorter than either of those infamous poo scenes in Franzen’s novels. But you’ve got to wonder what makes an author go there.

Of course, Franzen wasn’t breaking new ground (or wind). Bathroom humor has a long and august history in English literature. In 1682, Dryden satirized a literary foe named Thomas Shadwell in a poem called “Mac Flecknoe”:

From dusty shops neglected authors come,

Martyrs of Pies, and Reliques of the Bum.

Much Heywood, Shirly, Ogleby there lay,

But loads of Sh—— almost choakt the way.

One likes to imagine Renaissance middle school boys chuckling over that after fencing class.

And we can go back even further, to the very origin of feces in English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer. One of the funniest moments in “The Canterbury Tales” is in “The Summoner’s Tale” when Thomas gives the wicked friar a present:

Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart,

Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart,

That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun.

In high school, the promise of such naughty bits was the only thing that kept me straining through Chaucer’s Middle English. But surely, kids are more sophisticated today.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Paul Farhi | November 11, 2013