The power of analysis as a driving force in fiction is sometimes underestimated.
Take Garth Greenwell’s new novel, “Cleanness,” for example. The way he parses an awkward conversation or a drunken night on the town or the most intimate erotic encounters is absolutely spellbinding. Even when his candor on carnal matters — specifically, homosexual matters — plunges deep into sadomasochistic territory, his interpretation of what’s going on between his characters is so savvy and precise that you can’t help admiring its elegance.
Greenwell made a huge splash a few years ago with his debut novel, “What Belongs to You,” in which a nameless young American teacher in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, becomes involved with a Bulgarian hustler he picks up in the restrooms of the city’s National Palace of Culture. The relationship between them — equal parts feverish connection and mutual exploitation — was relayed in a headily sidewinding prose impossible to resist.
“Cleanness” is just as exquisite in its handling of what for many readers will be taboo territory. It’s beguilingly structured as well, with its opening and closing trios of stories showing his narrator mired in a “disordered life” (as he thinks of it) while the central three chapters find him genuinely, transcendently in love.
Greenwell’s narrator — seemingly the same character who narrates “What Belongs to You,” though this isn’t spelled out — is a secondary-school English teacher in Sofia who’s keenly aware of “the weird dissonance of my private and public lives.” We’re ushered into his situation gently in the book’s opening chapter, concerning a graduating student who confesses to being in love with his male best friend — a fact that Greenwell’s narrator has guessed already.
Uncertain how to respond to his ex-student’s confession, Greenwell’s narrator does his best. When the young man declares, “[I]f I could kiss him just once, that would be enough, I wouldn’t want anything more,” his former teacher’s reply is both sympathetic and wry: “I don’t think so … I don’t think that’s how it works.”
The tension between the narrator’s readiness to be his student’s confidant and his worry that he’s overstepping certain bounds couldn’t be more delicately rendered. And Greenwell’s use of run-on syntax to evoke the student’s onward rush of feeling and disclosure is canny.
Having treated us to this tactful exchange between troubled student and cautious teacher, Greenwell throws us in at the deep end in the book’s next chapter, when his narrator, after making online contact, turns up at the door of a leather-strapped bruiser he hopes will grant him his masochistic wish “to be nothing.” What he’s after is an “intense pleasure … that can’t be accounted for mechanically; the pleasure of service, I’ve sometimes thought, or more darkly the pleasure of being used.” As their encounter unfolds, the question arises whether there’s any limit to what the narrator wants or the punishment he’ll seek.
His urge toward self-obliteration is unnerving (HIV contagion is an active possibility), but for readers willing to accompany him on his dive into abandon, the payoff is an intense suspense as to where he’ll draw a line. That same dynamic applies to another chapter late in the book, when Greenwell’s protagonist hooks up with a young man so thoroughly given over to his desires that his purity of purpose leads the book’s narrator to dub him “the little saint.” (“I don’t care about being safe,” the saint says, “I don’t care if I get sick, why should I be special.”)
This hedonistic courting of self-annihilation, Greenwell’s narrator reflects, may be “more coherent” than his own modus operandi, but it’s further than he can bring himself to go. Instead, here and elsewhere, he finds himself torn between “alternating precaution and risk,” and that leaves him open to the most surprising turn in the novel: a genuine love affair that unfolds in its central trio of chapters, collectively titled “Loving R.” (“R.” being a semi-closeted, 21-year-old college student from the Azores who’s in Sofia on a European Union-sponsored exchange program.)
“Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never,” the narrator realizes, “it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” The toughest challenge the two men face is finding a permanent home where they can build a life together. And if they can’t build a life together, Greenwell’s narrator suspects that he’ll be tempted “to go back to what R. had lifted me out of. It was a childish feeling, maybe, I wanted to ruin what he had made, what he had made me, I mean, the person he had made me.”
This summary makes it sound as though “Cleanness” is chiefly an inward-looking novel about a young gay man reluctantly driven by reckless desires that make him “a stranger to myself.” But Greenwell is a marvelous outward observer, too, and his narrator’s portrait of his Bulgarian surroundings is remarkably vivid. His students’ debate over whether to stay in Bulgaria or flee their country for better opportunities abroad has a poignant urgency. So does their anguish as to why pro-democracy protests in Bulgaria get no international attention while the contemporary Arab Spring uprisings get all sorts of coverage. Greenwell’s narrator’s own uncertainty as to where he fits in Bulgaria and in his students’ lives slyly echoes his uncertainty over how to handle his own most self-destructive sexual instincts. Who is he? What is he?
“Cleanness” closes with him believing he has returned to “the shame I was accustomed to, the shame that felt like home.” Yet that doesn’t feel like the end of this story. If Greenwell (now back in the US after his years in Bulgaria) continues in this vein, it will be fascinating to see how he tackles his alter ego’s experiences on the home front.
By Garth Greenwell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 223 pp., $26
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.