The ones of us who acted on the hormonal impulses of young sex would know that if you were attracted by some other boys it was not easy to find a willing partner. If you acted upon those (need for sex, touching, kissing, holding and being held by another boy) needs and wanted to keep it secret, it would not be the boys locker room. At least in my case that was for starring, measuring, comparing and that’s about it. We all have different ages if at all, when we caved and had our first teen year encounter (s). We do know that some kids are more brazing than others and the amount of hormonal disposition varies. Having said that some gay kids are ready as soon as they turn from a little boy into a little man.
Alex Clark on The Guardian tells the story of novelist Garth Greenwell. This man Greenwall takes us through his adventures as a very young kid in one of his novels. That is what attracted me to post this story since I have written and posted articles about the sexual escapades and adventures of gay men prior to 2015. What makes the reading interesting is the age and then as he adds the events like a sculptor adds clay to his work making it more tantalizing with details. On this case it’s his writings that become a work of art.
In a crowded hotel coffee shop in Bloomsbury, Garth Greenwell is giggling guiltily as he recalls the moment he considered bunking off his publicity tour in favor of going to the theatre with the novelist Alan Hollinghurst, whom he had just met for the first time. A stern look from his publicist knocked that idea on the head, but you can understand why the otherwise dutiful Greenwell might have been tempted. He first read The Swimming-Pool Library as an undergraduate, “and it just knocked me flat”; Hollinghurst, he says, is “one of the essential writers for me”.
I had thought of Hollinghurst as I read What Belongs to You, Greenwell’s astonishingly assured debut novel, but questioned whether the parallel came to mind because both writers create vivid, enclosed worlds filled with ambiguous and shifting relationships between gay men. In fact, though, the greater similarity lies in their ability to blend a lyrical prose – the prose of longing, missed connections, grasped pleasures – with an almost uncanny depth of observation. “I knew he was performing a desire he didn’t feel,” writes the unnamed narrator in the novel’s opening pages, “and really I think he was drunk past the possibility of desire. But then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.”
“He” is Mitko, a 23-year-old Bulgarian whom the narrator, a teacher at the American College of Sofia, encounters in the bathroom of the National Palace of Culture, and whom – breaking one of his own rules, a rule founded in pride rather than ethics – he pays for sex. The remainder of the novel, told in three starkly named sections, “Mitko”, “A Grave” and “Pox”, describes the bond that develops between them over a few years, its changing power dynamics, its swings between tenderness and menace. In its midst, we are returned to the Kentucky of the narrator’s birth, and his painful relationship with his homophobic father.
That middle section, a masterful study in alienation and escape, shares ground with Greenwell’s own background and, he acknowledges, “cuts very close to the bone”, despite the “firewall” that he tries to maintain between life and literature. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1978, and was kicked out of the house by his father when he was 14; they have been estranged for more than 10 years. He says: “Certain things that the narrator’s father says to him in the novel, my father said to me, and especially that moment when the narrator’s father rejects him, and says you’re not my son – those are words my father spoke to me.” The act of writing, he explains, “was so scary and painful because I confronted things that I had spent a long time running away from, and it was really the act of writing that let me confront them”.
When Greenwell’s parents separated, he went to live with his mother. It was the start of a long journey out of Kentucky, which took him, via scholarships, to an arts academy in Michigan, graduate degrees at Washington University in St Louis and at Harvard (where he also abandoned a PhD, realising that he needed to write more creatively) and thence to a life as a high-school teacher that eventually brought him, like his narrator, to Bulgaria. And it was the realisation that, in Sofia, he could find something of his own early life “which was really the spark of the novel, this weird recognition I had in this very strange place, especially working with young people, for whom I was the only openly gay person they had ever met in real life. And having them tell me their stories, that for all of the differences and all the particularities of their story, felt like they were telling me my story, of growing up gay in Kentucky in the early 90s, with this kind of very near and low horizon of possibility drawn across your life.”
He had chosen to teach because he felt he had a debt to those teachers, in Louisville and Michigan, who had “saved my life” by encouraging him to explore his musical ability and, by extension, his larger potential. But Greenwell’s story – and the story of What Belongs to You – is not simply one of educational success, nor even of getting out of your restrictive home-town. It is also one of accessing what he calls the radical potential of queer communities – and of discovering the havens, both physical and emotional, that gay men have made for themselves in otherwise inhospitable terrains. In this way, he contends, there is a link between poetry and cruising, “because like poems, cruising carves privacy out of public spaces. Poems are a kind of private communication that occurs in public speech. And I think cruising is that too: a training in reading occult codes; a way of seeing a significance in the world that most people don’t see.” For him, Walt Whitman, with his “dignifying gaze”, his frequent passages through crowds and momentary interactions with others, is “the great poet of cruising”.
Back in Kentucky, when he was flunking his English classes, when he was imbibing the message that to be gay “is to be taught one lesson about your life, and it’s that your life has no dignity and your life has no value”, Greenwell found something that would, for all its transience, confer those things upon him. Aged 14, in parks and bathrooms, “I first discovered queer communities that let me have sex”, places that would allow him to experience queerness “as something that could be a source of joy and intimacy and human connection”.
He was, he concedes, having indiscriminate and unsafe sex, and was the recipient of “a kind of luck you don’t earn” when he escaped illness; he also acknowledges that places such as these can lead to people being victimised, or assaulted, or used “in instrumental ways”. That notwithstanding, he remains convinced that cruising parks are valuable places that “need to be written about with much more richness and nuance, especially by heterosexual culture and by a kind of normalising homosexual discourse, a homo-normative discourse”.
For him, this is related to being asked repeatedly whether he would consider himself to be a “gay writer”. This, he understands, is a fraught question for many writers, who for decades have been told “if you write books centred on queer lives, where the gay guy isn’t just one strand, or a friend, then there are straight people for mainstream readers to identify with – but if a book really is centred on gay lives, you’ll be in this gay ghetto”.
But, he says, he has never accepted that – in fact, he thinks quite the reverse. “Absolutely I am a gay writer. And not only that, I want to tell gay stories about gay communities for gay readers, because I think that this incredible progress that queer people have made in things such as marriage equality have come at the cost of a mainstreaming narrative that has homogenised queer lives in a way that has sacrificed far too much and, tragically, has further marginalised the most vulnerable members of the queer community.”
He talks further about marriage equality as “really a marketing battle: it was about packaging queer lives in a way that allowed the value of those lives to be seen by people who are disgusted by queer lives” – although his point is also that this is probably an inevitable and necessary stage that any minority rights movements has to go through. Where that becomes problematic, he insists, is when those at the edge of the movement become further distanced, as when human rights campaigners “at their rallies in front of the supreme court in support of marriage equality, said, Oh trans person get off the stage.”
Ultimately, he says, “any project of liberation has to have as its goal the multiplication of legitimate models of life”. Pulsing through What Belongs to You is Greenwell’s suggestion that there is something substantial and significant in the relationship between Mitko and the narrator. The fact that they first meet in a bathroom – rather than a shop, or a cafe, or even in a club – is hardly accidental; what Greenwell is trying to show is that in places such as these, “people like my narrator and Mitko can meet in a face-to-face way that is unstructured by authority. Those spaces scramble the categories by which we organise our life, categories such as class and race, and they allow for human connection across that space.” That belief is supported, he argues, by the fact that cruising spaces persist even where “relative queer privilege is most pronounced” – places such as Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, for example – and that they have not disappeared even where oppression is in retreat.
Greenwell is fascinating on the legacy of oppression, questioning whether the “triumphant narrative” of gay liberation “has made it difficult to acknowledge the shame that gay people still carry around”. Where does the shame come from, and why does it persist? For him, he says, it goes back to the lessons he was taught in Kentucky about the value of queer lives: “I know that there’s no validity in them. I don’t believe them. And yet I will never get to be a person who was not taught those lessons.”
How, then, to translate these ideas into a novel so delicately sprung, not to mention one that takes place in the complex arena of sex work? The key appears to be in a kind of commitment to ambiguity and indeterminacy. Some of this is down to linguistics – much in the book turns on the gaps between English and Bulgarian, and in particular the word priyatel, which Mitko deploys to mean friend, boyfriend and client. Some of it is structural: while the narrator appears to control the story, and we are never granted direct access to Mitko’s consciousness, Greenwell shows enough to allow us to empathise with him. It is a novel of transactions, of inequalities, and of fine moral judgments; the narrator, it is clear, could leave Bulgaria whenever he wished, while Mitko, who becomes increasingly frail, is trapped.
Greenwell, who started his writing life as a poet – getting up at 4.30am to work for two hours before his teaching day began – first wrote about Mitko in a prize-winning novella of the same name, which he recast to become What Belong to You’s opening section. Now, he is working on a series of short stories, all set in Bulgaria and with the same narrator, that “fall into the interstices of the novel”. Like the writers he admires, WG Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marías, he is drawn to the idea of a body of work that seems as though it is all one book, or, as with Sebald in particular, a territory in which the reader wanders. It is perhaps too soon to say precisely what Greenwell’s own fictional territory will look like – but even this early on, the landscape looks too riveting to miss.