A few years ago I was invited to Sofia, in Bulgaria, to give a reading. After I checked in to my hotel a young bellboy escorted me to my room and informed me Colin Farrell had been sleeping in the bed that would now be mine for the past few nights. “Colin Farrell,” he said, putting his hands to his face as he tried to contain his excitement, “sexy, sexy man. Look on internet, he has big penis.”
It’s the kind of information that might have excited the unnamed narrator of Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, a gay American teaching in Sofia whose sexuality has estranged him from both the land of his birth and his father but whose compulsive desires conspire to bring as much pain as pleasure into his life.
The novel is divided into three sections, Mitko, A Grave and Pox, the first of which has been adapted from a novella Greenwell published a few years ago. It’s a powerful and at times startling opening, wherein the narrator pays for casual sex with a hustler in the bathroom of the National Palace of Culture and seems both overwhelmed and turned on by the young man’s availability. “It was astonishing to me that any number of these soiled bills could make that body available, that after the simplest of exchanges I could reach out for it and find it in my grasp.”
The transaction is the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the two that veers from loving to manipulative to threatening, depending on the mood of the unpredictable Mitko, who remains firmly in control of his clients, cognisant of the power he holds over them and capable of squeezing every penny – or leva – from them whenever he is in financial distress.
This section is constructed in a very skilful manner. The narrator feels no shame in purchasing Mitko’s services but nor does he fully recognise that in a contract of this sort, it is possible to purchase the body but never the mind.
As he begins to treat the hustler more like a boyfriend than a hired hand, the lines become blurred and emotions confused. When he takes Mitko on a trip to Varna, a town on the Black Sea, it is only sexual frustration that allows him to face the reality of their situation and utter it aloud. “I came all the way from Sofia, I said, and I’ve paid for the room, for our meals, for everything. I came to be with you, to have sex with you . . . I get sex, I said, and you get money, that’s all.”
Vivid depiction of sexuality
Mitko, who is 23, occasionally comes across like a sulky teenager, addicted to internet chat rooms, constantly demanding and selfish, and prone to tantrums, but the depiction of his sexuality is so vivid and potent that the reader cannot fail to appreciate why the narrator is so in thrall to him. He is an addiction, one that the narrator needs to quit cold turkey, but even when a separation eventually occurs, it seems clear it would take little for him to fall off the wagon in search of a fresh fix.
The novel takes an even darker turn in the second section which explores two crucial relationships in the narrator’s life: a difficult one with his father which contains a scene in a shower that is as disturbing as it is convincing, and a burgeoning romance with another boy, K, that leads to a moment of peculiar voyeurism and serves to reinforce the novel’s interest in the connections between power and sex. It also contains one of the book’s most powerful lines when, demanding that he be allowed to return home having been kicked out by his stepmother for being gay, his father calmly declares in a phone call that “if what you say about yourself is true, you’re not welcome in my house”.
But it is when we return to Sofia that the novel comes full circle, bringing Mitko back into the story and replacing his earlier menace with a moving vulnerability as he is diagnosed with syphilis. Ensuing scenes set in a doctor’s surgery are blackly comic, and it is clear that if one is going to fall victim to a sexually transmitted disease, Bulgaria is not the best place to be.
sation What Belongs To You is written in long, dense and unbroken paragraphs that can initially feel quite intimidating but are so filled with intriguing characteri
sation and raw emotion that they are a pleasure to read. It’s a powerful novel from a writer who seems destined to produce fine work in the years ahead, describing both the condition of loneliness and the insistent cravings of the flesh with precision and sensitivity. At times there’s a sense Greenwell is digging so deeply into the psyche of his flawed hero that even he is uncertain what treasures or calamities he might find there.
He never seeks to manipulate our emotions, but creates a narrative voice so enigmatic that one feels both affection and disdain for him simultaneously. Too often in fiction it becomes clear how an author wants the reader to feel, but Greenwell’s character is too complex a creation for any easy judgments. And that is what will make both him and this novel particularly memorable.
John Boyne's latest book is the short-story collection Beneath the Earth