The Short Version: An American teacher in Bulgaria meets a young hustler while cruising for sex. They begin a relationship of sorts, but is it real or is it simply transactional? As the months and years pass, the narrator must come to terms with himself and his past – as well as his future, all while the hustler Mitko lingers around the edges of his life…
The Review: I’m always intrigued by paradoxical writing, or writing that sparks a dissonance in the reader’s mind while they’re working through a book. Take the opening section of this book, “Mitko”: in it, there are several descriptions of sexual encounters that a reader might assume would be delivered hot and steamy but that are, in fact, rather cool and restrained. It’s as though Greenwell is keeping us at arm’s length from the moment.
This sense of being held outside of the visceral heart of the narrator’s story is reinforced when, in the middle section (“Grave”), the narrator’s fiery inner monologue breaks out and we feel all sorts of passions: love, lust, anger, confusion, and more. It’s interesting that this section details, in one continuous paragraph that Alexander Chee (on So Many Damn Books) described as an extended aria, the narrator’s time growing up in America – not his current circumstance in Bulgaria. Indeed, in the third section, where we pick up with his story some two years after the end of the first section, some of that chilliness returns, that sense of isolation and of distancing from the reader. But by that point, I was hooked: I tore through the second and third sections of the book in just a few hours where the first section had taken me the better part of two days.
In many ways, this book is the watershed that popular opinion is making it out to be: Greenwell has written the first novel of gay romance to be given rhapsodic reviews in all the major outlets and to be lauded not as a great gay novel but as a great novel period (that also happens to be a gay novel). And, in this context, I can’t help but thinking that the lack of passion in that first chapter is a choice by Greenwell – that this repression of emotion is a reflection of the narrator’s repression as well. The explosion of emotion that results after news that his father is dying (in part two) feels like the sort of thing that would come after a long time of keeping everything bottled up and held down. So, too, the recession of that warmth and passion in part three – not going back to where he started, but back at least to a place somewhere in between.
The decision to set the book in Bulgaria is also fascinating to me. The socioeconomic differences, as well as the cultural ones, allow Greenwell to tell a story that wouldn’t make much sense as played out in the US (so far as we understand it) but that still feels vitally of the moment. The narrator’s interactions with Mitko, especially when he picks him up in the bathroom, feel like something out of a time when homosexuality was still largely criminalized in this country, out of a time when the plague was crippling the gay community and nobody in the larger world was ready to acknowledge it.
A quick search online tells me that Bulgaria is at least nominally open to homosexuality (e.g. it’s not criminalized and hasn’t been for some time) but the post-Soviet politics of the country leave it generally less economically and socially advanced than even some of its neighbors in the EU. And one of the most memorable scenes in the book comes from when the narrator expresses his relative poverty to Mitko, only to have Mitko look around the room and point out his iPod, his cell phone, his laptop – these things that, from a certain American/Western perspective, make up a baseline of what we expect to have no matter what our socioeconomic strata. That moment is as eye-opening for the reader as it is for the narrator – and the ripple effect of that scene continues on well into the last section of the book, when the narrator is trying to get a penicillin shot and can’t because of an embargo or sanctions or some other political nonsense. There’s a part of this book that demands the reader pay more attention to the world at large – and to the ways in which much of that world looks very little like the parts of the world that the reader probably inhabits.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Ultimately, I found that the book left me lukewarm. Greenwell has a poet’s touch – he is, in fact, a poet as well as a classically trained singer, which explains (to me) the way that the dense chunks of text flow with an unexpected ease and surprising prosody – but I never recovered from the relative slog of the opening section. Even the moments of emotional openness and vulnerability felt like they were still at some distance, as though Greenwell did not intend to let anyone in, that he wanted the reader to experience this and never quite get to the emotional core. Of course, perhaps that’s the idea: after all, Mitko is a hustler and, at the end, we’re meant to ask if there was ever anything more between him and the narrator. I thought, briefly, that there might’ve been – but that just means I was as much of a sucker as the narrator. There was no emotional core, just business. Perhaps it’s the same thing here.