Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"What Belongs to You," by Garth Greenwell

Lori Ostlund, author of the recent, wonderful, and very well-received novel “After the Parade” (see my post of 10/19/15), a few weeks ago recommended Garth Greenwell’s new novel, “What Belongs To You” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) (my first 2016 title!). Since I value and trust Ostlund’s recommendations, I got and read the book. It is the story of an American man who seems to be in late youth or early middle age teaching English in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is gay, and the main focus of the novel is his meeting with and ongoing relationship with Mitko, a young hustler. Although the nameless main character and narrator pays Mitko for sex, they develop a further connection that is hard to define. There is lust, a kind of indefinable love, and a sort of friendship, yet there is still and always a transactional nature to their meetings and their complicated intertwined lives over a couple of years. There is an element of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” story. Although those two stories, and the main characters, and the degree and type of connection between them, are all different, there is a common element of an older man from another country longing for and mesmerized by, even obsessed by, a beautiful younger man (boy, in the case of Mann's story) in the country he is visiting. Greenwell demonstrates how hard it is to categorize relationships. He also reminds us of how our heads and our hearts and our libidos sometimes lead in very different directions, and reconciling them is nearly impossible. All of this takes place in the beautiful but also sad and crumbling country of Bulgaria, where most of the young people feel they need to leave the country in order to have a life. The character of Mitko is an original, both very physical and transparent and yet mysterious and unpredictable as well. Despite his charismatic and gregarious personality, he doesn’t seem to find a way to settle into life; he drinks far too much, and is often semi-homeless, impoverished, and disconnected. Greenwell writes beautifully and evocatively about identity, sexuality, being an outsider in a country far from one’s own, and wondering what one is doing and where one is heading in life. I can’t say I “liked” the book, but I found it quite compelling.
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