The word “shame” occurs frequently in What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s exquisite first novel, and it is always related to desire. His narrator is gay, which causes him shame as a child; later he’s ashamed of the places—public toilets and other cruising grounds—where he goes to look for sex. It’s in one of these places, the bathrooms of Bulgaria’s National Palace of Culture in Sofia, where he meets a young hustler named Mitko, and it’s the peculiar, lopsided relationship between them, suffused with desire and shame, that is the subject of the book.
As might be expected, Mitko is rough, from a poor background. He’s in his early 20s, has a broken front tooth, is nearly always drunk, smokes weed, and gets into fights. He also makes a living from selling his body to a succession of shadowy men he mostly liaises with online. No big surprises there, yet he remains to some extent unknowable. “Never before,” says the narrator, “had I met anyone who combined such transparency (or the semblance of transparency) with such mystery, so that he seemed at once overexposed and hidden behind impervious defenses.”
The same could be said of Greenwell’s American narrator, whose name we never know. He seems to be absolutely forthcoming, yet there’s a great deal he doesn’t tell us. Who is he? What’s he doing in Bulgaria? We know that he’s a teacher at the prestigious American College there (as Greenwell was too for a while), but why? The reasons he provides are both informative and opaque. “I think I hoped I would feel new in a new country, but I wasn’t new here, and if there was comfort in the idea that my habitual unease had a cause…it was a false comfort, a way of running away from real remedy.”
At first the two men see each other regularly, but things predictably turn bad. There is the possibility of violence and blackmail, and a later unpleasant episode involving syphilis, despite all of which Mitko would like our narrator to believe that he is not just a client, but a priyatel, a friend. The word is inaccurate—friendship implies something fuller—but it’s clear that the usual barriers have broken down. Mitko keeps coming round, not just for sex or money, but sometimes out of a need to talk, to be seen and heard by somebody who likes him. There is mutual exploitation, but also emotion; each of them wants something more from the other, something harder, maybe impossible, to define.
A kind of answer lies in the second part of the book, aptly titled “A Grave,” when our narrator receives a message that his father is dying. The two of them have been estranged for a long time, and this news stirs both memory and conflict in him. Long ago in the past, there was a sense of wholeness, the Edenic innocence of childhood, from which he has been expelled by the original sin of his sexuality. In his father’s eyes, he is a “faggot,” a judgment from which his shame can’t be separated. The scene of rejection is cruel (and painful to read), all the more so because of the narrator’s palpable yearning for the love that has been taken away. This has been foreshadowed in an earlier moment when he watches a young girl being held by her father while she leans over a river, and he reflects on how the meaning of that simple embrace will change as she grows older. He thinks: “So it is that at the very moment we come into full consciousness of ourselves what we experience is leave-taking and a loss we seek the rest of our lives to restore.”