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!

Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children (Ploughshares)

My essay, “Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children” is now available on the Ploughshares blog here. Here is a little of what I discussed of my favorite novelist’s approach to children in her novels, especially The Round House and LaRose:

Erdrich’s most recent triptych of novels—The Plague of Doves (2008), The Round House (2012), and LaRose (2016)—all feature children more prominently than adults. In each case, children are confronted with a many-layered moral question that their experiences over the course of the novel will help them to process. Notably, adults do not offer clear moral guidance. They do not have all the answers, and sometimes their answers are even harmful because they lack awareness of the context surrounding the child’s concern.

The Round House, narrated in first person by teenaged protagonist Joe Coutts, asks urgently, “How should a son handle the violent rape of his mother?” From the first sentence onward, this question is implicit in every interaction, even before Joe knows his mother has been raped.

…Erdrich demonstrates her maturity as a writer by choosing not to rush through this cataclysmic event in the life of a family. She appreciates fully how a single event can trigger feelings that move both spatially (from person to person and place to place) and temporally (within the same person or place over time, even over generations). Continue reading…

As a writer and editor, I am continuously in awe of Erdrich’s ability to sustain moral complexity through the experiences of children without exploiting them or using them as passive carriers of adult ideals.