At a talk he gave at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop several years ago, Allan Gurganus encouraged writers to compose sex scenes between their characters, even if they never intend to include them in a story’s final form. Gurganus’s reasoning was that characters are never more vulnerable, never more nakedly themselves, than they are during moments of sexual intimacy, and so to discover how they conduct themselves in such moments is to discover their souls, or at any rate aspects of them that might otherwise remain hidden to the writer.
Keeping in mind that line of thinking—the body as pathway to the heart of a character’s being—no contemporary American author I know writes sex better than Garth Greenwell. His debut, What Belongs to You, is an intricately patterned novel that details the tangled erotic duet between the nameless narrator—an American poet living and teaching English in Bulgaria—and a beautiful, rugged, mercurial hustler named Mitko. Given that their relationship is—or at least begins as—a series of fraught sexual encounters, the novel necessarily features a number of sex scenes. They are never merely carnal, however; they all fulfill Gurganus’s highest hopes for sex scenes that reveal character, and the tonal balancing act they perform is astonishing. They are neither prudish nor pornographic. Despite the narrator’s repeated recourse to such legalistic terms as “transaction” and “contract,” there is nothing of the icy blankness one finds in the sex scenes, say, of Bret Easton Ellis. Nor is there the overcooked, breathless quality of so much sex writing—the language of clichéd frenzy, of gathering orgasm, of adverbially encrusted sucking, fucking, and spurting. The book is mercifully free of pelvic thrusts.
In fact, Greenwell most often zooms in on sex when it’s not quite working, when it’s being wielded and withheld in the shifting balance of power between the narrator and Mitko, especially as the former’s feelings for the latter begin to exceed the boundaries of their client/hustler relationship. The novel’s opening scene establishes the erotic charge that such awkwardness can bring. The narrator, who pays for the privilege of giving Mitko oral sex in the bathroom of Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, casts their initial encounter as the first in a series of ever more significant betrayals to which Mitko will subject him. Throughout the blowjob, Mitko remains, despite the narrator’s hunger, unaroused, and yet gives a pitiful imitation of orgasm to bring the encounter to a close. The narrator is (understandably) unsatisfied and peeved, but the way Mitko smirks his way through the encounter with some admixture of impishness and innocence ultimately leaves the narrator more charmed than put off. The scene reveals so much about both men but especially about Mitko: the wink beneath the “hypermasculine style and […] air of criminality” he cultivates, and beneath both the instinct to preserve a semblance of ownership over the body that circumstances (or, as he will later insist, fate) force him to sell.
The narrator, in fact, skips past the sex that is presumably more satisfying, saying only “I sought Mitko out repeatedly over the next weeks, and after our third or fourth encounter I decided to invite him to my apartment.” What follows is a complex dance wherein the narrator tries to initiate contact, only to be put off repeatedly by Mitko, who, after he finally acquiesces and receives his pleasure (again, briefly and elliptically rendered), spends hours drinking heavily and arranging his “friendships” with other clients online. The helpless narrator can only stand by, a lurker in his own house, half-heartedly seeking solace in poetry: “It was a slim volume, Cavafy, which I chose in the hope that I would find in it something to redeem my evening, to gild what felt more and more like the sordidness of it.” The poems fail to offer the consolation he seeks, but then, after several more agitating hours, not in Cavafy but in the strange, tender turn the evening takes, the ennoblement he’d sought suddenly appears:
I followed Mitko to the bathroom, standing behind him (he was still naked) as he stood to piss. I rubbed his chest and stomach, lean and taut, the skin of my hands catching just slightly on the bristles of hair; and then, at his words of permission or encouragement, something like Go on, I don’t mind, my hands went lower, and gingerly I took the base of his cock and wrapped my hand around the shaft, feeling beneath my fingers the flow of water, heavy and urgent, and feeling too my own urgency, the hardness I pressed against him. He leaned his head back, pressing his face against mine, rubbing it (it too was stubbled and rough) against the softness of my own, and I felt him harden as he finished pissing, as I carefully skinned him back and shook the last of it, feeling almost suffocated with longing, having never touched anyone in that way before, having never been before of that particular service.
What follows is not sex but a prolonged embrace, one that continues into sleep and that represents one of the few moments in which both men surrender their masks and defenses. It proves sadly short-lived. Their psychosexual push-pull resumes and grows stranger, and the novel’s first section, “Mitko,” ends with an abortive, violence-tinged weekend getaway in Mitko’s native city, Varna.
So, What Belongs to You is about sex. It is also about the sense of dislocation felt by an American self-exiled in Bulgaria. It is about the inner war between desire and practicality. And it is about the past that travels with us no matter how far we fly from its sources.
Greenwell is indebted to Spanish novelist Javier Marías; the casually non-linear approach to structure, a way of casting ahead to seemingly unrelated events and then doubling back to resume the novel’s plot where it left off; the legato, technically run-on sentence woven of multiple independent clauses separated by commas; the frequent ruminations on language and translation; the discursive urge to qualify, reconsider, and reiterate, to watch the habits of the mind take shape on the page—these are all hallmarks of Marías’s style, and it’s a real feat that Greenwell is able to channel so many of them while always sounding like himself: equal parts feeling and restraint, his tone free of the character-flattening sarcasm that has lately crept into Marías’ novels.
But “A Grave,” the novel’s second section, owes more to the novels of Thomas Bernhard, those single-paragraph storms of thought, albeit without the rant-y quality of Bernhard’s prose, which can (at least for this reader) clang in the ear. The long, delirious paragraph that is “A Grave” is an intense blend of family saga and coming-of-age story as filtered through memory. Its action is easy to summarize: Narrator receives letter (his estranged and ill father wishes to see him); narrator leaves the class he’s teaching; narrator walks through Sofia. Given the simplicity of this set-up, the tautness of the section is stunning. Memories, furious and kaleidoscopic, rain down on him, blazing with drama. The whole time he clutches the letter bearing his father’s news. If Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine had unchained a nightmare of the American South instead of idyllic Combray, it might have resembled “A Grave.” Naturally, given the news he’s received, many of the narrator’s memories swirl around his father: the tenuous affection between them during the narrator’s youth; their growing unease with each other, especially during the narrator’s unrequited first love with a boy called K.; and the outright antagonism with which his father greets the discovery of his son’s homosexuality.
Much as Junot Díaz has done with his autobiographical stand-in, Yunior, Greenwell is spreading his narrator’s trajectory across short fiction as well as this novel, fleshing out a whole life in increments. His riveting story of S&M gone awry, “Gospodar,” published in the Paris Review, further illuminates his narrator’s past. At the story’s outset, the narrator is given degrading commands and told to “be a good girl” by the man to whom he is submitting. The narrator’s reaction gives the most succinct description of his relationship with his father:
At this last something rose up in me, as at a step too far in humiliation. This is what most men would feel, I think, especially men like me, who are taught that it is the worst thing, to seem like a woman; when I was a boy my father responded to any sign of it with a viciousness out of all proportion, as though he might keep me from what I would become, a faggot, as he said, which remained his word for me when for all his efforts I found myself as I am.
In two sentences, Greenwell has articulated the absolute futility of attempting to beat queerness out of children and revealed the psychic scoriations such attempts inevitably leave.
But this father is not the flattened-out villain of a fairy tale. The narrator is forced to reckon with what he sees as a kind of inheritance: his reckless indulgence of his own sexual appetites comes to mirror his father’s. Such is Greenwell’s generosity toward his characters that he cannot banish the father entirely from his sympathy (and, by extension, ours); near the end of “A Grave,” the narrator’s stepsister reveals her recent discoveries about their father’s hitherto mysterious childhood—a harrowing Faulknerian tale of poverty and violence—and it is impossible thereafter to slough him off as merely a homophobic bully.
This central section, from which Mitko is entirely absent, works a kind of structural magic on the novel, complicating and enriching our perspective on the events of the first section. “A Grave” also colors the section to come; it is the vast gulf of the narrator’s past across which Parts I and III speak to each other. This is a novel that defies conventional spoiler-warning logic—it strikes me at once as a book in which nothing can be spoiled for the reader and a book in which to discuss Part III, “Pox,” at all seems a kind of spoiler. Consider this, then, a half-hearted warning.
In “Pox,” Mitko reenters the narrator’s life after several years without contact, and he does so as abruptly and forcefully as he did on page one. Greenwell’s prose echoes this abruptness—indeed, in one of the book’s many beautiful symmetries, “A Grave” and “Pox” both begin with literal knocks on the door, life-shifting intrusions.
Mitko’s discovery that he has contracted syphilis propels him back to the narrator. His show of concern that the narrator may have contracted it from him is, in true Mitko fashion, laced with vague threats, pleas for sympathy, requests for money, and displays of almost fraternal affection. He is the same seductive, shifty Mitko of the opening but in every way diminished: thinner, poorer, sicker, more strung out, unable to endow his threats with any real menace. He has been hospitalized and jailed since that frustrated weekend in Varna years before. Though the narrator is, by now, in a committed, loving, long-distance relationship with R., a young Portuguese man, it seems nearly impossible for him to quit Mitko entirely. His desire to save the doomed hustler grows even as the impossibility of doing so becomes more and more apparent. And if R. and “that cleaner life” he offers seem rather too cursorily sketched, it is perhaps only out of fidelity to the narrator’s preoccupations, for poor R. can hardly compete with the complex passion the narrator still feels, despite all, for Mitko.
There is so much to praise in What Belongs to You. Consider, for instance, the lyrical precision of its language, the ecstatic play of v’s and n’s in a phrase like “she couldn’t help but provide the missing voice, inventing the invitations and evasions that his own lines responded to or provoked.” I can praise its many symmetries, its subtle parallels and motifs, its poignant insights into childhood, children, and those who raise them—something that will surely go unsung in most assessments of the work. I was floored by the penultimate chapter, in which the narrator and his mother take a train ride and find themselves seated across from a charismatic little boy and his grandmother. As a father myself, every page made me want to shout, That’s how it is! The startling swerves of mood, from exuberance to defiance to dejection—that’s how children are! The alternating currents of indulgence and exasperation—that’s what they elicit from adults! And the way the narrator connects this boy with Mitko feels so apt; the way the boy gets away with naughtiness through sheer charm seems so clearly the childhood equivalent of Mitko winking his way out of that sham orgasm in the novel’s opening.
Then there is the tonal mastery of having a narrator who is both highly literate and wholly empathetic. Consider a sentence like this: “And Mitko allowed himself to be pleased, he smiled at the man and thanked him, calling his gift strahoten, a word that means awesome and is, like our word, built from a root signifying dread.” With this polyglot etymology, the narrator is not flaunting his erudition—he is simply being faithful to the workings of his consciousness; these are the details he can zoom in on and parse during otherwise maddening hours spent watching Mitko navigate a sea of men who occupy the same unenviable position in which the narrator finds himself. It is remarkable that such a man can engage with Mitko—who has, we learn, a roughly seventh-grade education—without giving in to condescension.
Reviewers are fond of envisioning bookshelves and placing the book under consideration alongside similar, often similarly great books. Many, myself included, will want to slide What Belongs to You between such gay classics as Giovanni’s Room and Death in Venice, both clear ancestors, or next to a luminous cousin like Bruce Benderson’s The Romanian. But let us not view this as merely a great gay novel, though it is one. Let us include What Belongs to You among great novels period, novels of consciousness as diverse as Austerlitz and As I Lay Dying. That is where it belongs.
Micah Stack is a native of Thibodaux, Louisiana, and a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Juked, Gemini Magazine, and Oxford American. He currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, his son, and his two Shih Tzus.