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Book Review: Mitko

Mitko
Garth Greenwell
Miami University Press, 2011

The basic story at the heart of Garth Greenwell’s lush, lyrical debut novella Mitko is disarmingly simple: a scruffy, alluring young street hustler named Mitko catches the eye of a fussy, repressed visiting American in Sofia, Bulgaria, who then pays the young hustler for sex and quickly, disastrously, falls into a kind of love with the boy. This type of story fills roughly four thousand police logs in Central Europe every single year, and most of the pathetic, watery-eyed American dreamers who get caught in those reports will swear that there was something special about their tag-sale Tadzio. Since they can’t all be right, there’s a strong temptation to say they’re all wrong – and to say a good deal more about them as well.

Greenwell seems not to care about this, and the strength of his conviction makes Mitko a quietly triumphant success. When his narrator says of his infatuation “Never before had I met anyone who combined such transparency (or the semblance of transparency) with such mystery, so that he seemed at once vulnerable, over-exposed, and unrelievedly hidden behind impervious defenses,” we have three simultaneous reactions: that this guy hasn’t met many people, that there’s probably no ‘mystery’ to the young man in question, and that there’s certainly no vulnerability. All this bodes poorly for the main character.

Also clear in any excerpt from Mitko is the stylistic gamble Greenwell is taking. His book has a dreamlike, sinuous quality to its narrative, as though it were trying to be one sentence, or even one thought. Somewhere along the line, Greenwell must have decided that such an approach has the best chance of capturing the weird quasi-delirium of desire – and he’s right about that, but oh, the risks involved! Writers who try this sort of thing tend to forget that in the hundred years of its existence, the term ‘Jamesian’ has more often than not been used as an insult. They also tend to overlook how easily such an approach can run right off the rails (even in that single quoted sentence, there’s something not quite right about “unrelievedly” as a modifier for “hidden”).

Again, Greenwell is saved by the purity of his conviction. His book is studded with passages of twisting, confident beauty that get right inside the heart of the emotions they’re treating, as when our narrator attempts to get down to business:

It wasn’t until he returned that I finally asked his price for the act I wanted, which was ten leva until I unfolded my wallet and found only twenty leva notes, one of which he eagerly claimed. Really what did it matter, the sums were almost equally meaningless to me, especially when laid against the object with which we agreed for a moment to pretend they were commensurate, or not precisely with the object itself but with a certain time during which I would be allowed its use, by which I mean its enjoyment. I would have paid twice as much, and twice as much again, which is not to suggest that I had unlimited or even particularly ample resources but that in my own estimation of this body, the enjoyment of which I was contracting to rent, seemed almost infinitely dear. It was astonishing to think that any number of these soiled bills, one of which I now passed to him, might make that body available to me, that after the simplest of exchanges I might simply reach out for it and find it wondrously in my grasp.

From the first, the hustler Mitko – with his military style haircut, his whipcord body, and his chipped front tooth – is the very embodiment of bad news, and it’s a tribute to Greenwell’s powers that we both know that and are still fascinated by the narrator’s only too predictable fall. Our repressed school teacher doesn’t merely want a body to be available to him – he wants what johns so often want, the one thing that can’t be bought: intimacy.

This is juxtaposed to almost comic effect, at several points in the novella – as when the narrator grows petulant because Mitko is taking rather a long amount of time online, setting up meetings with other paying customers, “arranging his week” while the narrator sits idly by:

To nourish or stave off this bitterness, I’m not sure which, or perhaps out of simple boredom, at some point I pulled from my shelf a volume of poems that I held open on my lap. It was a slim volume, Cavafy, which I chose I suppose in the hope that I would find in it some narrative to redeem my evening, to gild at least what I felt increasingly to be the sordidness of it.

It had to be Cavafy!

“How can we account for them,” we read at one point, “time and chance that together strip us of our promise, making of our lives almost always less than we imagined or was imagined for us, not maliciously or with any other intent, but simply because the measure of the world’s solicitude is small?” The narrator might betray a certain fatuousness in wondering such hifalutin’ things about a transaction that was in its very nature meaningless, but we as readers are fully justified in feeling otherwise about Greenwell’s own promise. In Mitko he displays lavish talents and some jarringly clear insights into the squalor and odd nobility of lust. The book is a memorable success and a debut not to be missed.

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