RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Garth Greenwell

Cleanness ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

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

What Belongs to You ~ A Capsule Book Review

Posted on

What Belongs to You ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

He’s an American teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria, teaching English at a prestigious American school. We never know his name. He is telling the story in his first-person voice. The story revolves around the narrator’s destructive relationship with a rent boy named Mitko, and, while their relationship is a sexual one, we never have to suffer through any explicit details.

The narrator comes to love Mitko, knowing all along that he is a user, a liar, and a self-aggrandizing manipulator; he is charming and good-looking and he knows how to use these qualities to his benefit. He can also at times be menacing and threatening when he doesn’t get his way. We see a portrait here of a mentally unbalanced young man who knows how to manipulate people to achieve his ends.

We come to see that Mitko has a terrible life, and, despite his youth, is in failing health. While the narrator tries to live a respectable life in his apartment, going to work every day, Mitko shows up periodically at his doorstep whenever he wants something. He frequently lies to get money, which makes him an extortionist, among all the other things he is. The love that the narrator feels for Mitko soon turns to pity as he sees that Mitko is falling apart. He cannot deny Mitko anything, knowing all along that lies and betrayal are a part of everything Mitko does.

While What Belongs to You is the story of a friendship, it is also a story about the nature of destructive and obsessive love. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while and unlike anything I’ve read before. Written in a unique, compelling and accessible style by a writer named Garth Greenwell. There are a lot of words in this novel, but never too many, always just right. Every word rings true.

The first-person narration is all introspective but never self-indulgent or whiny, as it could have been. On a different level, it’s a story, which I found fascinating, about life in modern-day Bulgaria, a country of 7.2 million in southeast Europe, a country that is collapsing and crumbling in many ways, a country that has lived through Soviet occupation, a country that is not what it once was. As a stranger in a strange land, the narrator navigates his way through two different health clinics, knowing only a smattering of the language, the public transportation system, and everyday life in a foreign capital. Some books are so good and so different from anything else that reading them is like being given a gift. This is one of them.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp