Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You (Ploughshares)

My essay “Disgust and Tenderness in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You,” was published today on the Ploughshares blog! You can read it here.

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You is a beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on how we learn to fill the emotional space between ourselves and others. The unnamed narrator is an American teacher in Bulgaria whose coming-out experiences as a teenage boy in the South indelibly shape his relationships with others later in life.

Yet, it would be falsely reductive to label this book as somehow limited in its interests to gay experience; the loneliness and the struggle to reach out, to touch other human beings, belongs to all of us. Indeed, one of Greenwell’s successes in this book is the ability to subvert common tropes of shame and disgust around homosexuality, and expose an original tenderness, a vulnerability underneath, that we all share.

In the opening chapter, after the narrator experiences his first small betrayal by a younger Bulgarian man named Mitko, he reflects, “There’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.” But romantic attraction is only an entry-point into this question for Greenwell, who guides his narrative gracefully through the narrator’s strained memories of his father, meandering walks through the Bulgarian landscape, and encounters with strangers in a hospital and on a train. Continue reading

There is so much I love about this book, and I was only able to write about a sliver of it. I hope you’ll pick up a copy and read it next time you wander through the bookstore!