by Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
240 pages. $26.
“IT DOESN’T MATTER if we win or lose,” states a Bulgarian proverb. “Either way, we’re getting drunk.” This attitude—to stoically accept whatever life may bring—is a viewpoint reflected in Cleanness, the haunting and poetic new novel by Garth Greenwell.
After the publication of his first novel, What Belongs to You, Greenwell was praised as a literary wunderkind. The book won the British Book Award’s Debut of the Year, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and was named a Best Book of 2016 by more than fifty publications in nine countries. Now, in Greenwell’s second novel, the Kentucky native once again describes a queer expatriate’s quotidian interactions while living and working in Sofia, Bulgaria. As in What Belongs to You, the narrator hails from the American South, teaches high school English, and searches for intimate connections in his spare time.
In both books, the narrator is romantically linked to a college exchange student from Portugal named R. who, while a minor character in the first book, takes center stage in Cleanness. Divided into three parts, the novel focuses on how the storyteller somnambulates through a life altered by finding and losing love. The first and last sections, though clearly post-relationship, are ambiguous in their chronology. Both of these sections are left unnamed, while the middle section is titled “Loving R.”
In the first chapter, called “Mentor,” the narrator meets one of his high school students, who tells the older teacher about discovering first love. An ethical red line keeps the narrator from physically reaching out to the student in a passage that raises the theme of forbidden touching. Another leitmotif is the impact of the impermanence of love. The narrator says: “He would be all right, I thought again, comforting myself by thinking it, though I thought too that he wasn’t altogether mistaken in what he had said, that there would be loss in loving another, that the perspective that limited his grief would also limit his love, which, having taken the measure of its bounds, he could never again imagine as boundless.”
“Gospodar,” a term of Slavonic origin meaning “master” or “lord,” is the name of the second chapter. In this story, the narrator assumes the role of a submissive sexual partner during a BD/SM tryst with a man who insists upon calling him “kuchko,” or “bitch.” The scene goes awry. Still, the encounter delivers its intended purpose: “It was for this excitement I had come, something to draw me out of the grief I still felt for R.; he had left months before, long enough for grief to have passed but it hadn’t passed, and I found myself resorting again to habits I thought I had escaped, though that’s the wrong word for it, escaped, given the eagerness with which I returned to them.”
The following chapter, “Decent People,” details the narrator’s attendance at an anticorruption rally. There, he mentions the gay poet Frank O’Hara for the second time. O’Hara’s poetry, often intimate in tone and content, has been described as sounding “like entries in a diary.” Like the chapters in this book.
Then begins the middle section, “Loving R.” In the fourth chapter, “Cleanness,” the narrator and R. meet at a restaurant during a time when a “horrible wind” with “something almost malevolent about it” covers Sofia with sand from Africa. Then, in “The Frog King,” the lovers fly to Bologna for New Year’s Eve because it was the “cheapest place we could fly.” Finally, in “A Valediction,” R., having left Sofia to finish his university degree back in Portugal, returns to Bulgaria for an extended visit.
Part III begins with “Harbor,” in which, at a Bulgarian-American writers’ conference by the sea, the narrator contemplates the “break” he and R. have decided to take. “Little Saint” offers a mirror image of the previous sexual liaison. The narrator meets a submissive who calls himself a “no limits whore” and requires only that whoever wants to fuck him do so without a condom. Finishing the book is “An Evening Out,” which sees the narrator, scheduled soon to leave the Balkans and return to the U.S., meeting a group of former students. Unlike earlier, on this outing the unnamed storyteller allows himself to touch intimately one of the young men.
Greenwell’s writing is like The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. At first, it’s an undecipherable, sometimes maddening, brainteaser. But with persistent effort to uncover the key, plus a little patience, the end result is more than satisfying. The intellectual and artistic reward can feel like a rapturous joy. Greenwell eschews the use of quotation marks in lines of dialogue to identify different speakers. Sentences and descriptive passages may be lengthy, as if the reader had stumbled upon the private journal of a lonely writer who took copious, stream-of-consciousness notes about his life. The accounts portrayed on some pages seems dull, while on others they’re electro-charged with descriptions of rough sex. Names are not given to most of the characters. Instead, they’re referred to by a single letter of the alphabet. One wonders at first if “N.” in the ninth chapter is the same individual as “N.” in the seventh. (It turns out they are not.).
Greenwell’s prose shines and shimmers with each page turn. His narrator’s first-person exposition reveals personality via off-handed comments about third parties and their reactions. None of the reporting may be as it seems, as it’s not clear whether the voice telling the tales is reliable or not. Yet through it all, the narrator reveals himself in flashes. It’s a bit like sitting next to a well-spoken, heartbroken (but pretending he’s not) passenger on an overnight bus who blathers on and on, but in the end, you find him fascinating.
My main issue with the book, and it’s a minor one, concerns its title. In the queer world, too many gay men—sometimes insultingly, sometimes thoughtlessly—refer to those infected with HIV as “dirty” and the uninfected as “clean.” To my relief, the connection between the title and the book has nothing to do with that connotation and everything to do with R.: “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.”
The book concludes at the end of an alcohol-soaked night, the narrator riding home in a taxi while drunkenly musing on his life and time in his host country. How very Bulgarian.
Court Stroud works in Spanish-language media and lives in New York City with his husband, comic Eddie Sarfaty, and their two cats.