BOOKS-GREENWELL

"Cleanness"

Four years ago, Garth Greenwell published a debut novel about an American teacher who falls in love with a gay hustler in Bulgaria.

“What Belongs to You” might have withered unnoticed in the weeds of literary fiction. Its plot was cramped, its setting dank, its characters obscure. But none of that mattered. The book smoldered with lust and regret across pages of hypnotically gorgeous prose. Critics and other readers responded with awe to Greenwell’s unnerving insight into the tangled desires and betrayals of the heart.

Now Greenwell is back with “Cleanness,” a collection of stories that revisits that teacher’s experience in Bulgaria, a country the author knows from his own stint as a teacher at the American College of Sofia. Three of these nine stories have appeared in the New Yorker — and almost all of them are extraordinary. Although the form is smaller, the scope is broader, and the overall effect even more impressive than his novel. Greenwell’s style remains as elegant as ever, but here it’s perfectly subordinated to a fuller palette of events and themes.

The opening story, “Mentor,” unveils a bitter revelation about the awesome responsibilities and impossible burdens of teaching. Like most of these pieces, it takes place in Sofia, a once glorious capital now filled with desolate Soviet-style apartment blocks. We meet the narrator, who like most of these characters is never named, as he enjoys a drink with a favorite student. As a gay visitor in a homophobic country, the narrator has made a point of speaking openly about himself and his life, hoping to provide an oasis of safety and encouragement for the closeted young people in his class. “You’re the only person I know who talks about it, who’s so public and who isn’t ashamed,” his student tells him, and the narrator swells with the pride of his vocation.

But then, in a shift as subtle as the drift from day to twilight, this young man begins describing his disappointment with a fellow classmate, a “particular friend” on whom he’s long had a crush. What, he asks, should he do now? How, he wants to know, can he endure such heartache? Suddenly, the student’s need feels too acute, his plea for teacherly advice too consequential. Any good professor will resonate with these concomitant feelings of happiness and dread, like two sides of the same page: the delight at being consulted and the horror of being overwhelmed by a student’s “outsized passions and griefs.” In a moment, the narrator’s magnanimity curdles into resentment. “I was exhausted by listening to him, by the effort of it in that noisy space,” he confesses, “but also by the obligation it imposed, not just to listen but to feel in a way I had grown unaccustomed to feel.”

That slip from safe feelings to treacherous feelings plays out in other stories in this collection as well. Greenwell is repeatedly drawn to precarious moments of emotional transition, particularly in regards to romantic attachment and erotic compulsion. In “Gospodar,” one of several extremely explicit stories, the narrator seeks out a dominant partner to humiliate him during sex. “It was for this excitement I had come,” he says, “something to draw me out of the grief I still felt.” But almost immediately his arousal is clouded by “the first stirrings of unease.”

The intimate physical detail of this disturbing story will exceed some readers’ tolerance, but that’s entirely Greenwell’s point. “There’s no fathoming pleasure,” he writes, but he’s bravely plumbing its dimensions. He takes us into those brackish currents where our pure ideals mix with the salty waters of desire.

Again and again, he considers the sentiment embodied in that purposely awkward title: “Cleanness.” His narrator is a man devoted to finding a healthy relationship while still thirsting for obliteration. “I felt with a new fear how little sense of myself I have,” he thinks, “how there was no end to what I could want or to the punishment I would seek.” Only the graphic demonstration of that predicament laid out in these pages could give us such a visceral sense of what he means.

But “Cleanness” is not unrelentingly bleak. Indeed, the range in these stories is part of their triumph and part of what makes their existential sorrow so profound. Three stories at the center of the book are presented under the title “Loving R.” They offer a layered account of the narrator’s relationship with a 21-year-old student from Lisbon. So gray is the climate of Sofia and so wary is this narrator that his relationship with R. feels like the arrival of spring. “Each time he smiled it filled me with a happiness I had never felt before,” he says, “a happiness that was particularly his to give.” In their love, he finds “a kind of cleanness” that he’s been craving, something to scrub away the “shame and anxiety and fear” that have dogged him since his father taunted and beat him as a boy. How this complicated relationship between the narrator and his lover — two men from different countries and at different points in their lives — plays out is one of the many incomparably bittersweet elements of “Cleanness.”

Fortunately, it almost feels too late or at least superfluous to celebrate the fact that this remarkable collection will not be shunted away to a back shelf for “Gay & Lesbian Literature.” In November, Edmund White received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation for the revelatory light cast by his autobiographical and fictional writings over the past half century. Greenwell, Ocean Vuong, Alexander Chee and other contemporary gay writers are working in fields that White helped open over the past half century, but they’re also pushing our literature further and finding wider audiences. Part of that success reflects society’s greater appreciation for LGBTQ+ people, of course, but it’s also a product of how extraordinarily talented these writers are.

Where will they go from here? After Greenwell’s first novella, “Mitko,” which developed into his novel “What Belongs to You,” and now this new collection, “Cleanness,” I’m eager to see what Greenwell can do beyond the confines of his experience in Bulgaria. I’ve heard the references to Yoknapatawpha, but Faulkner’s fictional realm is not quite analogous; there is a vast world — real and imagined — outside of Sofia that’s waiting for this brilliant writer.

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