There is a subterranean level of NDK which I never visited, nor even knew existed. It is in the underground men’s bathrooms where the unnamed American protagonist of What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2016) first meets Mitko, a young Bulgarian reeking of alcohol who shows up for illicit assignations with any man willing to pay the price. A transaction takes place after a handover of twenty lev and results in the American’s desiring “more and more privacy” with Mitko.
I admit that what attracted me to this novel is its Bulgarian setting because I have never previously read any works of gay literature. I was immediately captivated by the tale of a high school English teacher’s homoerotic obsession with a thin, unwell hustler who schedules trysts in Skype conversations. It is difficult at first to understand why the teacher is interested in this insensitive male prostitute, but then his life has been set off-kilter by living in a foreign country. Although we never learn the reason why the American came to Bulgaria in the first place, we understand that his sense of dislocation is eased by the few hours he sleeps embraced by Mitko.
In the narrator’s evocative monologue, he reflects on his fixation in the Bulgarian. “I found it difficult to explain the obligation I felt, the sense that I couldn’t, whatever else might happen, simply cut Mitko adrift, though I had tried to do that before, and maybe I would have to do it again.”
There are two things readers will immediately notice while following the American’s story. The first is his excessive use of short Bulgarian phrases, some of which I recall from my two-year sojourn in Sofia. Definitions are always provided and the foreign terms do not interfere with the eloquent flow of the narrative. Frequently, the only way possible to describe something seen, or felt, is with a specific word or expression. As someone who has seen the ubiquitous “dire Soviet apartment complexes” in Sofia, I agree that the only word capable of describing these colorless tenement buildings is the Bulgarian word blokove.
The other element of the novel’s construction that may deter casual readers is the author’s use of seemingly endless paragraphs. The entire 41-page second section of the book is presented without paragraph breaks. This format is true to the protagonist’s one-long-breath recollections of growing up gay in Kentucky interspersed with more recent memories of experiences in the realm of his modern day life in Bulgaria. This style is integral to understanding the flow of the teacher’s mind and most readers will find they have no desire to take breaks at all.
Whether What Belongs to You can be considered the great gay novel or not, I cannot judge. It is a compelling story of unrequited love set in an unusual setting. “Maybe they were a mistake, my years in this country,” the narrator states at one point. The American teacher seems to see Bulgaria as he sees Mitko. His “obligation” not to cut loose from his attraction to Mitko is similar, it appears, to his inability to leave his life in Bulgaria, no matter what hardships may come. As a result, although written by a foreigner, in many ways What Belongs to You comes across as a very Bulgarian novel.
Garth Greenwell taught high school English to Bulgarian students at the American College of Sofia for four years. The first section of the novel was previously published as the novella Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Greenwell holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.
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