Cleanness ~ A Capsule Book Review

Cleanness ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American author Garth Greenwell’s (born 1978) new novel, Cleanness, is told in the first-person voice of an American high school teacher in present-day Sofia, Bulgaria. The narrator of Cleanness never tells us his name. He is only ever known to us as “I” or “me.” Since I don’t know anything about Garth Greenwell, I strongly suspect he’s writing about himself and his own experiences in Bulgaria, since he seems to know the country—and the city of Sofia—so well.

Cleanness is more a collection of interrelated short stories than a plot-driven novel. Each chapter (story) is told in the same voice, the same point of view, but each story could stand alone. There is no plot to speak of, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dud as a novel. Each chapter is compelling in its own right; you don’t know where the whole thing is going until the end. At the end, we get a sense of completeness, of wholeness.

The narrator of  Cleanness is gay but, since he lives in a former communist country that is not particularly welcoming to the gay way of life, he mostly is “closeted,” adhering, as a teacher of high school students, to a code of ethics. He never touches, or becomes too familiar with, any of his male students, no matter how much he might want to. In one chapter near the end of the book he and two of his male students go out drinking in clubs to celebrate his leaving; he is attracted to the older of the two boys, who is about eighteen (and the feeling seems to be reciprocated), but it never goes any farther than dancing together and flirting.

The narrator never mentions his age, but we assume he is in his thirties. He is not a particularly happy man. He alludes to, obliquely, an unhappy childhood that has left him scarred. We get the sense that he’s teaching school in Bulgaria to escape an unhappy life. He says he likes living abroad, so he is in a way a disaffected American. He has a “boyfriend,” known only as “R,” who is younger and from Portugal. He and R. are in love, the narrator says, but it’s a love that’s not going to work out, we see, because R. is young, unsettled, and doesn’t seem to know what he wants.

A couple of the chapters are intensely sexual. In one, the narrator (in trying to recover from a broken heart) has an encounter with an older man he has met on the Internet. The older man is frightening because he is a sadist who likes to inflict pain on his sexual partners. This episode ends up being repellent and distasteful. In another episode, the narrator meets a man who recognizes no limits when it comes to sex. He doesn’t care if his sexual partners are “old and ugly.” He doesn’t care if he gets sick; he only lives for the moment and wants only to be “used.” (This is a not a book I’d recommend to my ninety-year-old mother.)

Garth Greenwell’s previous novel, published in 2016, is What Belongs to You, which is also about an American man teaching high school in Sofia, Bulgaria. It also is told in the first-person point of view. The narrator, it seems, in both novels is the same. Cleanness if not exactly a continuation or a sequel to What Belongs to You, but the two books are enough alike to make a matched pair. For my money, the first book is the stronger of the two. It will be interesting to see what Garth Greenwell does for his next novel. Will he set it in Sofia, Bulgaria again, or some other highly unusual, foreign locale?

Copyright 2020 by Allen Kopp

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