Readers were first introduced to the unnamed narrator of Cleanness in Garth Greenwell’s debut, What Belongs to You. This first book followed the fraught emotional and sexual life of an American teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria, as he struggled to disentangle himself from a charismatic hustler, Mitko. In Cleanness, Mitko is gone, but the new book – structured in nine linked stories – largely picks up where What Belongs to You left off. The narrator is teaching literature, exploring the cultural and political life of the city – at a time of mass protests against the government – and engaging in increasingly risky casual sex.
The big change in Cleanness is that the narrator has fallen in love. R., a Portuguese student who was a minor character in What Belongs to You, takes centre stage as their relationship deepens and ultimately falters. But a period of intense happiness is at the heart of the book. In densely detailed prose, and page-long paragraphs, we are immersed in the pair’s days together, first in Sofia and then on holiday in Venice.
Colm Tóibín has called one of the stories, “The Frog King”, “a great American story about happiness”, and one has to agree. Homosexuality is taboo in Sofia, but in Venice the couple can be openly in love, and “The Frog King” offers heartbreaking insight into the ways happiness can feel out of reach for people who are made to feel ashamed of their sexuality. When R. surprises the narrator with presents on Christmas morning, he describes feeling “like part of the human race”.
Sex is described in a variety of contexts in Cleanness. With R., sex is joyful: “Sex had never been joyful for me before … it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear.” In the stories that bookend this period of happiness, sex is used as a way to explore the narrator’s shame and fear. After one particularly traumatic encounter he feels “how there was no end to what I could want or to the punishment I would seek”.
Cleanness dramatises things not often dramatised in fiction. And while 20 pages of minutely observed sadomasochistic sex may seem like an acquired taste, Greenwell transforms these encounters into acute psychological portraits. It is his ability to anatomise such a broad range of queer experience, and to capture in every line the constant tension of countervailing impulses, that makes him such a compelling writer.
Picador, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "Garth Greenwell, Cleanness". Subscribe here.