The turn of the new year is invariably filled with the desire to make amends for past errors mingled with the promise of doing better this year. In this spirit of reconciliation, I decided to return to two significant works of fiction I overlooked in 2016, Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs To You” and Philip Dean Walker’s “At Danceteria and Other Stories.” Both have made the first days of 2017 a delight.
Garth Greenwell’s debut novel tells the story of an American teaching in Bulgaria, whose insatiable need for intimacy leads him into a tumultuous relationship with a young prostitute named Mitko. From their first encounter, the American (who remains unnamed throughout) is consumed with Mitko, allowing his desire to lead him to questions about his troubled childhood and his escape from the United States as an adult.
Over the course of the novel, through a series of transactions which leave the narrator physically and emotionally unsatisfied, Greenwell muses on the relationship between history and present, reveling in nostalgia and creating a sense of ennui that his characters are never able to shake. He shows beautifully and with urgency that geography offers no escape from the problems of our past. The only real escape is to confront them in the present. (Perhaps a good book for anyone considering a move to Canada in the next couple of weeks.) And this echoes the perpetual problem of the expat: another country, same self.
In many ways, Greenwell’s book is not particularly innovative in terms of plot or setting. Caleb Crain’s thrilling 2013 novel “Necessary Errors,” involving an gay American expat and his relationship to a prostitute in post-communist Prague, and the French film “Eastern Boys” both revolve around complex relationships between slightly older men and Eastern European male prostitutes. In the past couple of years, gay narratives about Eastern Europeans have become increasingly popular.
What sets Greenwell’s novel apart, however, is not the plot or setting, but rather the spiritual quality of the narrator’s detective-like search for meaning in his past. His own sexual desires propel him toward recognition of his mortality. In the third section of the book, for instance, Mitko’s declining health leads the narrator to this realization:
“[It] was unbearable that this body so dear to me should die. But though I held him more tightly the space that had opened up between us remained…Love isn’t just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with them…”
The author’s ability to convey the high-strung emotional backdrop of the story with such precision in spite of his sparsely punctuated, loose prose style (it certainly feels like he is painting with a large paintbrush) is compelling and often baffling. Greenwell draws readers into his grayish world immediately and keeps us there even after the book ends. It must be said, “What Belongs To You” is a depressing book. The not-so-young-anymore narrator, pained by his past, conflicted by his sexual desire and need for emotional stability, who receives only heartache for recompense, is sure to bring cheer to no one. Greenwell’s novel is nonetheless an important work, a potent reminder of both our frailty and the struggle to see beyond it.
Philip Dean Walker’s “At Danceteria and Other Stories” also asks important questions about mortality and what it means to be a gay man in an ever-changing cultural landscape, though mostly from this side of the Atlantic. Set in the eighties, Walker takes us from San Francisco’s Castro to Studio 54 in Manhattan, introducing us along the way to the biggest personalities he can conjure up: Halston, Rock Hudson, Sylvester, Princess Diana, Liza Minnelli and Freddie Mercury, among others. These detailed personalities make Walker’s stories especially lively and entertaining, and there is no doubt that he did his homework for this collection.
Yet the specter of AIDS looms large in most of the stories. In “Charlie Movie Star,” for instance, the author imagines Rock Hudson’s (literal) dance with death on the same night he was famously photographed at the Reagan White House, short months before he died of AIDS.
The most powerful story in the collection, however, takes the “gay disease” head on. “The Boy Who Lived Next to the Boy Next Door” imagines the upheaval of the gay culture as the “Hot Guy Flu,” or the disease believed to afflict only attractive people, became AIDS, a death sentence for thousands in the community. And while personality is at the heart of most of the stories in the collection, Walker backs almost completely away from celebrity in this story, preferring instead a darkly humorous sketch of the first appearance of AIDS through the eyes of the average gay man. Both the story’s lack of celebrity and its confrontation with the disease that is only shadowy and peripheral in other places make it stand out.
On the whole, Walker’s debut collection is as fun as it nostalgic and as profound as it is deadly. I am confident that his next will be even better.
What Belongs To You: A Novel by Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
At Danceteria and Other Stories by Philip Dean Walker
Squares & Rebels