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Book Review: What Belongs to You

By (January 11, 2016) No Comment

What Belongs to Youwhat belongs to you

by Garth Greenwell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

One of the many ways novels resemble carbuncles, wens, and fistulae is that the word “expanded” is never a good omen when used to describe them. A fiction author – at once the most preening and insecure of all wordsmiths – returning to some work and saying, “This! There needs to be more of this” is both an understandable and a pathetic creature, convinced that a few more strokes of genius will somehow add sublimity to mediocrity.

It never actually happens. Whether the author in question is Henry James or Stephen King, the chances that any work can be bloated into brilliance are virtually zero. A story comes to an author, the author chops and strangles it down into words, the good authors then agonize over those words, and that’s that – when it’s done, it’s done, for good or ill. Usually ill, but that’s how authors grow in their craft.

The good folks at Farrar, Straus and Giroux are billing What Belongs to You as Garth Greenwell’s first novel, and that’s technically true. It’s the story of a fussy young American man, a teacher at the American College in Sofia, Bulgaria, who encounters a rough and seedy young rent boy named Mitko and falls headlong into a disastrous, erotically charged, and mostly one-sided love affair with him, and if that plot rings a distant bell, it’s because although What Belongs to You is Greenwell’s first novel, it’s not his first novella – that would be a slim 2011 work from Miami University Press titled Mitko, which is the story of a young American teacher who falls for a rent boy in Sofia. Greenwell has used the novella as the first section of his debut, retaining all the sordid mismatch of the initial meeting:

Mitko looked at me again, friendly still but with a new intensity, and then he tilted his head slightly and moved one hand over his crotch. I couldn’t help but look down, of course, as I couldn’t restrain the excitement I’m sure he saw when I met his gaze again. He rubbed the first three fingers of his other hand together, making the universal sign for money. There was nothing in his manner of seduction, no show of desire at all; what he offered was a transaction, and again he showed no disappointment when reflexively and without hesitation I said no to him. It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another. But as soon as I uttered the word I regretted it, as Mitko shrugged and dropped his hand from his crotch, smiling as if it had all been a joke.

From this prised-out passage we see that the major elements in place in Mitko are unchanged: the narrator is still a prissy, egotistical jerk, Mitko is still portrayed as a pure-id barnyard animal in combat boots, and the prose is still very self-consciously but not at all off-puttingly Jamesian. And the action – such as it is – in the first section is unchanged in its somewhat cinematic, predictable motions, as in the moment after Mitko makes many a reader very happy by hauling off and belting the narrator:

We both froze then, I on the bed and he standing in front of it, as if both of us were waiting to see what would happen next. I felt real fear now, physical and immediate and, strangely enough, already fear for the more distant future, as I wondered how badly I would be bruised and how I would explain it to my students. I watched Mitko, and it seemed to me he was surprised by what he had done, and maybe he was frightened too by what he might do next. He only stood there an instant before he propelled himself forward and fell on top of me, and I must have flinched, I must have shut my eyes, though it wasn’t a blow that fell on my face but his mouth, his tongue as it sought my own mouth, which I opened without thinking.

The repetition of the “Mitko” parts of Mitko will thus shift a good deal of the weight of expectation onto the second and third sections of What Belongs to You, and it’s an enormous relief that those sections are so good. They share much of the surface sinuosity and rhetorical ambit of “Mitko,” but they show bright glimmers of a much-matured sensibility. What Belongs to You not only revives memories of all that was enjoyable about reading Mitko five years ago, it also encourages some eagerness for Greenwell’s next – and with any luck 100% Bulgarian rent-boy-free – novel.

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