Garth Greenwell’s masterful debut novel has a first-person narrator who teaches literature at the American College of Sofia, much like the writer himself once did. Any reader who’s aware of this will sense from the very beginning that the line between reality and fiction is blurry in the pages that follow.
At a public toilet in the basement of the National Palace of Culture, the teacher’s life becomes permanently embedded with a young male hustler with “a hypermasculine style and an air of criminality”, who brings with himself a promise of desire and sex, but not without hurts, sickness, rage, and haunting melancholia.
Divided into three segments, What Belongs to You was born out of an acclaimed novella called Mitko that Greenwell had published a few years ago. The very first meeting between the two primary players immerses the narrator in a deluge of carnal hunger, setting the mood for their tumultuous association that unfurls eventually: “It was astonishing to me that any number of these soiled bills could make that body available, that after the simplest of exchanges I could reach out for it and find it in my grasp.” Fiction writing about the primal quality of impulse is seldom this precise.
The novel proceeds like a long confession and Greenwell’s voice is so convincing that he makes even the moments of shame and humiliation seem justified and beyond reasoning.
In the subsequent sections, the book moves to the narrator’s other relationships, most significantly the one with his father that is predictably fraught and considerably darker in tone. But it’s his obsession with the central figure of Mitko that’s palpable even in the pages where Mitko is physically absent. Even though you are acutely aware that these are stories about fictional people, don’t blame yourself if on occasion it feels like you’ve been granted special access to someone’s private history. Such manipulation of intimacy is rarely as authentic.