Necessary Roughness: Why Everyone Is Talking about Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You

Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You
Garth Greenwell
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Feelings of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment have rarely been as vividly described as they are in Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You, which has won across-the-board rave reviews since it was published in late January through Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It runs 191 pages, but the language is so coiled and loaded that it feels far longer and more elaborate, one sentence landing like a fist and then the next one opening up into a flower. The tone of this book is hard yet kindly, like unforgiving rotgut whiskey with a welcome sweet-slutty cherry on top.

The first part of What Belongs to You was published in different form as a novella called Mitko in 2011. The narrator is a gay male American teacher in Bulgaria who is aware that he is being shifted from “one category of erotic object to another” by age, and so he jumps the gun by starting to pay for sex with Mitko, a young Bulgarian boy who is basically homeless. The narrator is drawn to Mitko as if he has no choice in the matter, as if his relationship with Mitko were a story he had to enact, as if this were his fate.

In its sense of inevitability, What Belongs to You is similar to Bruce Benderson’s The Romanian (2006), which is about an older man and a young male Romanian hustler named Romulus, but Benderson’s book is lush, ironic, and expansive in the manner of J.K. Huysmans, whereas Greenwell’s is compressed, always under pressure. Benderson, a rare contemporary dandy, falls madly in love with Romulus, but he seldom loses his cool, his erudition, or his self-awareness. Greenwell’s narrator doesn’t have that kind of weaponry. He is a kind of supplicant, offering himself up to cruelty as if it is to be expected.

Greenwell sprinkles his text with Bulgarian phrases so that we can savor them the way the narrator does, but he casts a cold eye on local pop cultural touchstones, and the book is at its best when the narrator is not taken in by surface sentimentality. Mitko talks about a secret boyfriend he once had, telling about how much they both loved a certain female singer, and the narrator is touched when Mitko shows him a video of the singer, as if Mitko is sharing an intimate memory from his past, but this feeling doesn’t last. Here’s what the narrator writes about what he sees:

“As I watched this woman, who was beautiful with a hollow sort of beauty, I was increasingly repelled by what seemed to me a transparent and entirely artless manipulation. She sang in a choked whisper, affecting an extremity of dignified, photogenic devastation, and at the end of a particularly tragic passage she broke into what seemed to me obviously rehearsed tears, lowering the microphone in a posture of defeat. From time to time, the camera (it was a professional film, an elaborate concert video) positioned itself at the singer’s shoulder, forcing us into greater sympathy with her as we shared her vantage on the thousands of fans stretching out into the darkness. They burst into a kind of ecstasy at the sight of her tears, producing collectively a sound of mingled dismay and joy. Ah, said that sound, here at last is the life of significance, the real life that frees us from ourselves.”

This is a complex train of thought, fantastically and even helplessly scathing and bitchy and also understanding of the need of the crowd (and Mitko’s need) and also sad about being left out of it. The narrator is an outsider, and outsiders always see falseness and hypocrisy most clearly, but the catch (and Benderson intimately understands this too) is that the outsider also wants in. It is so lonely when you smartly reject what you must reject.

The first part of What Belongs to You about Mitko lasts 58 pages, and then there is a second section called “A Grave” that amplifies what we have just read in nearly intolerable ways. The narrator is teaching class when he is interrupted with a message that says his father is dying in America, and that the father wants to see him. In a single burst of writing that runs with no paragraph breaks until page 102, the narrator remembers three crucial scenes from his adolescence, and they are so painful and so escalating in tension and detail that I sometimes had to put the book down and go, “Whew!” before picking it back up again.

The narrator recalls his friendship with a boy he calls K., and how close they were until one night when K slept over. They didn’t do anything sexual, but there was an intimacy to their embrace, and when K. wakes up in the morning he vomits all over the floor. The narrator’s father drives K. back home, and in the car Greenwell surgically examines the looks between his father and K, as if they are wary soldiers as heterosexual men and need to keep the gay narrator separate from themselves, as if he is diseased and might be contagious.

There is an even more excruciating scene after that in which K. makes sure that the narrator watches him making love to his girlfriend, asserting his heterosexuality and the narrator’s otherness as a voyeur on the outside looking in. And then there’s the final blow, when his father disowns the young narrator over the phone after he has found the narrator’s diary. It has been established that the father has worked hard to rid himself of his dirt-farm Southern accent, but it re-emerges here as he humiliates his gay son.

This is the kind of primal scene that makes you remember your own primal scenes, and the train of thought I had after I finished “A Grave” went like this…in the worst moments of our lives, are we aware sometimes of how dramatically effective certain things are, like the father’s Southern accent coming back as his worst instincts come out? I think that we are aware of these things, and I think they are a mercy, because there are bad times in our life that are just a mess and not dramatically effective, and so what can we do with them?

In the last part of the book, Mitko comes back to tell the narrator he has syphilis. (As Romulus so memorably says to Benderson in The Romanian, “Don’t you know sex is dangerous?”) What follows is another virtuoso display of literary skill where Greenwell walks you step by queasy step through getting tested for STDs in Bulgarian medical centers that don’t even have access to penicillin. This comes to a climax with his mercilessly accurate portrait of a certain kind of Eastern European female doctor.

“She was a slight woman, not quite young, and I was taken aback by her appearance, which suggested an idea of beauty at once ubiquitous and mocked here, a hypersexualized style associated with a certain kind of fashionable wealth,” the narrator writes. “She was elaborately made up, with heavy eye shadow and glossy lips, and her hair was teased and styled into an enormous, unmoving mass. Her medical coat was pulled tight, and beneath it she wore a skirt of some vaguely reflective material and extremely high heels.” Perhaps needless to say, this lady is not exactly a paragon of doctorly sensitivity, and she pushes the narrator to such a limit of exasperation and shame that he finally says something sharp and bitchy to her, which comes as a relief and a needed release for the reader.

The close of the book is the saddest part, the most melancholy, as Mitko starts to fade away finally. There is a moment where he makes a threat to the narrator, and the way this threat is revealed as useless is so sad that I had to put the book down again, for more than a moment. I heard Greenwell read from What Belongs to You at Book Court on January 27, where he read an anguished passage about Mitko in an anguished, dramatic voice. There were several points during the reading when I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t stand it!” But in the best possible way. This novel is just as good as everyone has been saying it is because it isn’t afraid to go further and further into areas that most of us would rather forget or leave alone. We can’t do that, though, without repeating errors and violence down to us in new and twisted ways ourselves. That’s what What Belongs to You is about in its unsparing way, and that’s why it is necessary, and subversively exciting, because it says things that need to be said.

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