by Conor Burke
Garth Greenwell’s moving debut novel, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), details the experiences of an American expat living in Bulgaria as he journeys through his own lust and desire, through the addiction he feels for Mitko—the young, sometimes volatile wanderer whom the novel’s unnamed protagonist meets in the below-ground bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture—and through his exploration of the maze of his own life, an exploration that he seems to hope will lead him toward a fuller understanding of himself and of those other bodies who are, at one time or another, and so often unavoidably so, an essential part of that self.
From this it is clear that Mitko and the feelings he elicits from the protagonist serve as a framework for the novel, as an embodiment of a centralized question (or perhaps a series of questions) the novel tries to chase down from one page to the next. Though he isn’t directly part of the long, single-chapter second section, one can feel Mitko’s presence just off-stage as the writing pushes and pushes the reader to scale the protagonist’s troubled experience with K. and with his father against all he feels and can’t quite fully understand in his encounters with Mitko and in his new life located so far from where he left the old one behind.
Later in the novel, we again have Mitko’s presence, despite his physical absence, when the protagonist and his mother travel by train across Bulgaria, sharing a car with a trio of strangers, one of whom is a young boy who quickly can’t bring himself to sit still, but instead slips into the performance of a series of antics that delight the others but generate a partial dismay in his grandmother (who tries with varying degrees of seriousness to rein him in). At one point during this encounter Greenwell writes,
Get down, his grandmother said sharply, I’ve already told you, and the boy dropped his hands, not
in surrender but to have them free for bargaining. But you don’t know what I’m going to do, he
protested, his voice full of the injustice of it, I haven’t even tried yet. Just wait, just let me try, then
see if it’s bad, and he made a particular gesture with his hands, curling his fingers slightly and
holding them both palm up before him, a pleading gesture…
From this and from what else occurs in the scene, the speaker realizes with stark surprise that so much of what the boy performs—how he moves, the gestures of his hands, his flight from one end to another of a visible emotional spectrum—recalls exactly all that he has been drawn to in the manner and movement of Mitko, and suggests much about how we learn the cultural and gendered roles we play in our lives.
This scene, along with so many others housed in the novel, reveals perhaps what is most stunning about Greenwell’s writing: his profound ability to beautifully render with such exactitude the exposed but often overlooked language tied up in even the smallest physical gestures. Another such example is found at the closure of one particular meeting with Mitko. There, Greenwell writes,
Thank you again, he said, and then, so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to stop him, even if I had
wanted to, he placed both of his hands on my shoulders and leaned toward me, touching his lips to
my cheek. He leaned back again and smiled, withdrawing his hands, but not before tousling my
hair, smiling g now with the unguardedness I remembered. It was a friendly gesture, unromantic,
which didn’t dismiss the intimacy of his kiss but set it in a new key, and I was filled with fondness as
he stepped out and pulled the door shut behind him.
Such moments abound in the novel, moments where the movement of one body in relation to another says so much more than anything the characters could ever articulate through speech alone.
Reading this novel one hears, here and there, echoes of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room—in how the protagonist has been forced to leave behind his country and go abroad in search of what he could not find or get back home, in the writing’s urgency which ripples with a tension that bespeaks how much is at stake for each character, in the insistence of the story’s drive toward the answers to deep and essential questions about love, identity, dependency, and human connection. And, like Giovanni’s Room, I expect that the resonance this story generates by its conclusion will linger and haunt me for some time.
This debut, in the depth of its reach, in the muscularity of its prose, in the strength of its storytelling, suggests that Greenwell is a writer to pay careful attention to. I for one look forward with great anticipation to whatever gift he gives us next.