Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo.
Certainly it’s a world that has been visited before: fascinated American courts rent-boy danger in post-Communist land. (Bulgaria this time.) Humanity blossoms and wanes in unexpected ways. I’d even tried the formula myself in a memoir I wrote about a Romanian hustler, but not with the grace and incorruptible intentions of Garth Greenwell, who has explored the subject afresh in a dazzling debut novel called What Belongs to You.
Last summer, I’d already read part 1 of What Belongs to You in a separately published short novel called Mitko. Its serpentine prose imprinted my brain with visceral images of life in Bulgaria that never faded away. The portrait of the hustler, Mitko, was indelible as well — alluring, worrisome, tragic. Greenwell’s sentences flowed with such relentless logic that they seemed to be writing themselves.
In October I met the author at the Odessa restaurant in New York’s East Village. I had the same reaction to Garth in the flesh as I’d had to the novel’s narrator. He has the gorgeous, golden face of a boyish Billy Budd, which was perched somewhere far above me on a surprisingly massive trunk. His eerily precise tenor voice sounded welcoming and playful. Greenwell had taught English in Sofia, Bulgaria. What luck to have him as a teacher, I caught myself thinking. This didn’t make it any easier to picture his clean-cut fresh face chatting with a big-pawed, chip-toothed hustler in a Bulgarian men’s room notorious for dangerous cruising. Nor did Greenwell’s résumé seem to have equipped him for navigating such waters.
Greenwell is a native of Louisville, Ky., who could have ended up an opera singer after studying vocal performance at the Interlochen Arts Academy and the Eastman School of Music. Graduate degrees from Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard, where he was crowned a Mellon Fellow, struck me as gloriously straight and narrow. He had a seven-year stint as a high school teacher, the last four of which he spent in Sofia, and he also became an Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Greenwell favors experience over professional perks, and anyone who loves literature should be thrilled he does.
Bolstered by an appetite for books and a love of music, open to adventure, Greenwell’s mind is endlessly inquisitive. Both his writing and his conversation reveal him as someone who clocks his environment wherever he goes like a compassionate camera. Our conversation jumped from books to sex to sexual politics to music to publishing as compellingly and comfortably as if I’d known him all my life.
Yes, he does get around, but Greenwell doesn’t travel in the touristic sense. Nor, as he has pointed out, does he indulge in “travel” writing. Bulgaria in What Belongs to You is presented as a place to live, illustrated economically by details that communicate the dreamlike experience of an always-fascinating foreign place. The description of a cold-numbed fly stuck to a creaky bus window puts the reader on that bus better than four pages of description could. Boys competing by balancing on the moving circular plate that joins the two parts of the bus evoke the California surfer experience none of them will ever have. Greenwell’s graceful, pulsating sentences are lined with such spare and sensual imagery, yet manage to include cultural observations, the drift of memories, and honest emotion, too. Sentences snake suddenly away from the tale being told and return seamlessly to it without distracting. The book becomes an extended meditation on the ways that desire leading to risk enlightens a writer’s understanding of a foreign country.
Part 2 of What Belongs to You, titled “The Grave,” further deepens the portrait of the narrator. It’s a 40-page block paragraph set off in his mind after a woman hands him a note announcing that his father is dying. As if on a stopwatch and with limited time to explain his past, the narrator runs pell-mell through the dark evolution of his relationship with his father, and a tale of first love that was a “combination of exclusion and desire.” This rich rant is inserted into the middle of the principal narrative about Mitko. It is as if the narrator were saying, “I can’t tell the rest of the story until I admit to you who I really am.” By the section’s end, not only have we learned about the tragic loss of a father’s love, we also understand some potentially deeper motives for the development of the narrator’s outsider sexuality. In part 3 of the book, Mitko returns, and his relationship with the author unravels like a heartfelt requiem.
By the end of What Belongs to You, I was convinced that I, too, had traveled. I’d been thrust into another world, where the tug-of-war between desire and violence might end badly, where the ugliness of financial need kept intruding on tenderness. All of this occurs in the context of Greenwell’s never-ending hope that somehow understanding — as well as a moral imperative — will resolve such struggle. If not, at least we have seen the character Mitko the way few have seen — or bothered to see — the person he is probably based upon. We have understood his neediness and his sense of vitality, his shattered nobility, his loss and his dread. Committed to honesty, Greenwell mournfully leaves Mitko’s tragic fate at our doorstep, with no pretense of providing a solution.
What Belongs to You is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.