Perhaps like me you recall first encountering the poetry of Walt Whitman as a high-school student and reacting to certain lines with adolescent giggles. It’s an experience shared by the narrator of Garth Greenwell’s exquisite first novel What Belongs to You, an English teacher at the American College in Sofia, a midwestern stranger in Bulgaria feeling often thrilled and threatened by its foreignness. Early on he recalls walking in the mountain village of Blagoevgrad, chaperoning some students to a conference on mathematical linguistics, “a field in which I had little interest and no expertise” — a flash of offhand candor that inspires steady faith in his telling. Walking along a path between mountain and river, he does a great deal of seeing: “The air was thick with movement, butterflies and day moths and also, hanging iridescent in the sun, tiny ephemerae shining and embalmed, pushed helplessly here and there by the light breeze. The grasses and trees were releasing in a great exhalation pods of seeds, the tiny grains each sheltered and propelled by a tuft of hair like a parachute or umbrella.” The scene has him thinking of Whitman: “There were lines in Whitman’s poems that had always struck me as exaggerated in their enthusiasm, their unhinged eroticism; they embarrassed me a little, though my students read them each year with delighted laughter.”
I take Greenwell to be signaling, through his narrator, his own ambitions. Part of his daring is to risk that sort of embarrassment: “What were those seeds if not the wind’s soft-tickling genitals, the world’s procreant urge,” he asks, consciously channeling Whitman, “his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it.” But the prose is of a piece with the rest of the novel.
Life, however, falls short of this madness. The narrator thinks of himself as living “almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances,” but also a “bearable life.” Just how much life a person can bear is the animating question of What Belongs to You, not that it offers anything in the way of answers. Risk and desire are the “coterminous” elements of the book’s style as well as its action, terms of engagement Greenwell makes plain from its first page.
The novel has a three-part structure, and is told in the past tense and at a remove of some years, though each scene is drawn closely enough to create the effect of real time passing. Part I is a revised version of a novella, Mitko, that Greenwell published with a small press in 2011. Mitko is a young male prostitute the narrator first meets at a public toilet in Sofia. The initial phase of their relationship is fitful and jagged, and inevitably unequal, erotically charged but also conducive to escalating betrayals. Though not as wealthy as Mitko imagines any American to be, the narrator is comfortable and employed; Mitko is homeless with no prospects aside from what he can find in the streets and online, a hurly-burly that engenders bruises and scars. Of course it can’t last—this transactional love, or, as Mitko puts it, priyatel, an unstable term somewhere between love, boyfriend, and friend — and the narrator comes to the point where he has to decide that it won’t.
Greenwell is a writer with a gift for metaphor, and though he often puts restraints on his lyric impulses, he tends to allow a flourish at the end of a scene. Here he describes an embrace at the end of a night:
He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close to him, and not just his arms, he wrapped his legs around me too and with all four of his limbs pressed me to him, embracing me so that when I breathed in the air was filtered through him, smelling of alcohol of course but also of his own scent that elicited such an animal response from me, that so fired me up (I imagined the chambers of the brain lighting up, thrown switches in a house). He lay like some marine creature wrapped around me, wrapping around me again if I shifted or half woke, and I slept as I have seldom slept, deeply and almost without disturbance, held like his beloved or his child; or held, I suppose it must be said, like his captive or his prey.
An overabundance of images, perhaps, but the excess has by this point been earned. The one infelicity, to my ear, is “fired me up,” but it’s a cliché redeemed twice over between the parentheses. The narrator’s final self-identification as “captive or prey” hits directly on the novel’s organizing theme, and his necessary ambivalence about it. The pleasure comes here — and throughout What Belongs to You — from the elaborate shapes of Greenwell’s sentences.
Part II, “Grave,” is 41 pages long, delivered without a paragraph break, a series of recollections of the narrator’s past, set off by the news that his estranged father might be near death. The memories come in a flurry as the narrator walks through a desolate part of Sofia. We hear of his father’s escape from poverty on a farm in Kentucky, to Chicago and then college, then a middle-class life in the suburbs; of the narrator’s own yearning for the phase of childhood when there lingers a physical aspect of parental love. The narrator relates his younger half-sister’s recent discovery of their father’s secret life online, and of the violent episodes that scarred his childhood. There are two episodes that bring about the narrator’s estrangement from his father, who disowns his son for being gay, and in between we learn of the narrator’s own stifled first love. There is a lot of heat in this section, much of it the heat of shame and humiliation, but that of discovery and appetite as well. It throws light on what comes before and after. But it’s breathtaking enough on its own. The final arresting image is an emaciated horse grazing near a monastery in Sofia: not “a portrait of misery” but of the persistence of life in a hard place.
“Pox,” the longest and final section, passes at a lower pressure, mostly, than what precedes it. Mitko returns to the narrator after an absence of two years — with a phase as a loan shark’s enforcer and a phase in prison — and informs him that he’s contracted syphilis. Though he’s shown no symptoms, the narrator learns that he has it too, and it turns out that the country is in the midst of a penicillin drought. The narrator seems to be a proficient speaker of Bulgarian, but living in the language is always an estranging experience for him. Entering a clinic for a second opinion, he finds himself directed to what translates as the “venerology department”: “I wondered if the word was used in the States. By its Latin roots it should have meant the study of love, and I wondered too how often that made it the right word for the people who came here, and whether it was the right word for my own predicament.” As far as I can tell, this is the closest Greenwell ever comes to making a joke. What Belongs to You is a humorless novel, and I’ve rarely come upon a book, like this one, about which it can be said that humorlessness is not a defect but an aesthetic necessity.
The question of what it means for the narrator to be an American in straitened postcommunist, post-collapse Bulgaria, where everyone young who can leave does leave, has been hanging over the book, and here it comes to the fore. Without it ever being stated outright, it’s clear that the narrator’s idea of Bulgaria has fused with his idea of Mitko. Early on, we see Mitko in pictures from a dating site taken years before his hustler phase when he was an undamaged teenager. Before we get our last glimpse of him, drunk and all but wrecked, the narrator meets a restless young boy on a train in whom he can’t help but see Mitko. It’s hard to tell at times whether the narrator is the innocent abroad or an American abroad among innocents. Greenwell’s insight is that the destruction of innocence is a process that never halts.
*This article appears in the January 25, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.