“There’s a particular joy in reading Garth Greenwell, in having that feeling precious and rare: here is the real thing.” –Claire Messud
“In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension…. Rhythm, order, music, and lucid expression.” —The New Yorker
“Greenwell proves himself a master of driving to the heart of obsession, fear, and love.” —Publishers Weekly
“Greenwell seems to have an inborn ability to cast a spell.” ―The New York Times
Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2016), winner of the British Book Award for Debut Novel of the year. The novel was longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, Lamda Literary Award, and LA Times Book Prize. Publishers Weekly named What Belongs to You a Top Ten Book of 2016 and it was also named a Best Book of the Year by over 50 publications in nine countries, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, NPR, Esquire, GQ, New York magazine, Out, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Miami Herald. Andrew Solomon called it “the best novel I’ve read in a generation,” and the New Republic praised it as “the Great Gay Novel of our times.”
What Belongs to You is being translated into eleven languages.
Greenwell’s short stories and literary criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Vice, and elsewhere. When asked about being labeled a “gay writer” in an interview that appeared in Guernica, Greenwell said, “I feel an intense debt to the queer writers who made my life—my life as a writer, my life full stop—possible, and I hope very much that I’m continuing a tradition of queer writing. I also absolutely reject any suggestion that by writing specifically queer stories and in aesthetic traditions or modes that have been coded as queer I am sacrificing any of the universal relevance or impact literature can lay claim to. I write from my experience as a queer man, and I write for queer readers. I also write out of my sense of the literary tradition, broadly conceived, and I write into and for that tradition. I am a gay writer, absolutely. And in no way does that fact limit the reach or importance of what I write.”
A native of Kentucky, Greenwell taught high school in Sofia, Bulgaria for years before returning to the States. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and teaches in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.
Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, winner of the British Book Award for Debut of the Year. The novel was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the Lamda Literary Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by over fifty publications in nine countries, and is being translated into eleven languages. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others. He lives and teaches in Iowa City.
WHAT BELONGS TO YOU (2016)
“In Garth Greenwell’s incandescent first novel, an old tale is made new, and made punishing.” ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times
What Belongs to You is a stunning debut novel of desire and its consequences. With lyric intensity and startling eroticism, Garth Greenwell has created an indelible story about the ways in which our pasts and cultures, our scars and shames, can shape who we are and determine how we love.
On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, drawn by hunger and loneliness and risk, and finds himself ensnared in a relationship in which lust leads to mutual predation, and tenderness can transform into violence. As he struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he’s forced to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in, a country whose geography and griefs he discovers as he learns more of Mitko’s own narrative, his private history of illness, exploitation, and want.
The Washington Post said, “What Belongs to You whispers like an incantation of desire…. In Greenwell’s poetic sentences, emotional fearlessness is mated with extraordinary sensitivity to the tremors of regret…. This is a novel of aggressive introspection, but Greenwell writes with such candor and psychological precision that the effect is oddly propulsive…. In the end, a novel like this can’t offer any resolution except its perfect articulation of despair that anyone with a heart will hear.”
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WHAT BELONGS TO YOU (novel excerpt)
That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with completely. But warning, in places like the bathroom at the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there. Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city burst warm still in one’s mouth. I was surprised to hear someone talking so freely in a place where, by unstated code, voices seldom rose above a whisper. At the bottom of the stairs I paid my fifty stotinki to an old woman who looked up at me from her booth, her expression unreadable as she took the coins; with her other hand she clutched a shawl against the chill that was constant here, whatever the season. Only as I neared the end of the corridor did I hear a second voice, not raised like the first, but answering in a low murmur. The voices came from the second of the bathroom’s three chambers, where they might have belonged to men washing their hands had the sound of water accompanied them. I paused in the outermost room, examining myself in the mirrors lining its walls as I listened to their conversation, though I couldn’t understand a word. There was only one reason for men to be standing there, the bathrooms at NDK (as the Palace is called) are well enough hidden and have such a reputation that they’re hardly used for anything else; and yet as I turned into the room this explanation seemed at odds with the demeanor of the man who claimed my attention, which was cordial and brash, entirely public in that place of intense privacies.
It was our usual table, next to the window that made up the bulk of the restaurant’s east-facing wall. We liked to look out on the garden, where even in mid-October, were it a normal evening, there would have been diners talking and smoking at the tables that were empty now, stripped of their umbrellas and chairs, a chain of black metal locked around their legs. It was a lovely garden, its shrubs and flowers rare in Mladost; it offered an illusion of seclusion or retreat, a green relief among the concrete desolation of so much of the neighborhood. The illusion was incomplete, of course: there was nothing to be done about the sound of traffic that was so near, or the exhaust that tainted the air of the whole district, and of course one only had to look up to see the gray of the apartment blocks, which put an end to all greenness. It was a garden better enjoyed inside than out, we had learned, a place to rest our eyes. But it was a mistake to sit at our table tonight, when there was no restfulness outside, when everything was movement and agitation, as it had been all through the past week, since a great wind had swept into or descended upon or laid siege to the city, it’s hard to know how to put it, or the sense of it shifted with the days. It came up from Africa, the guards at my school said, old men who greeted it with resignation; it carries sand from Africa, you’ll feel it, it is a horrible wind. And they were right, I found, there was something almost malevolent about it, as if it were an intelligence, or at least an intention, carrying off whatever wasn’t secure, worrying every loose edge. It made the city’s cheap construction seem cheaper, more provisional and tenuous, a temporary arrangement—as is true of all places, I know, though it’s a truth I’d rather not acknowledge, of course I came to hate the wind.
R. was late, as always, and after half an hour I had begun to wonder whether he would come at all. He often broke our plans, usually after I made whatever arrangements were required by my own obligations, inconvenient arrangements, often enough. It was a popular restaurant, busy with the dinner rush, and I could feel myself becoming a spectacle, quiet in a convivial room,a bit of negative space. I had already fended off several approaches from the servers, saying I was waiting for a friend, he was on his way, gesturing to my lifeless phone as though I had had some news of him, though in fact he hadn’t responded to the texts I sent. The waiters had become more insistent as the tables around me filled; soon I would have to order something or leave. Even inside we could hear the wind; it was a sound above our human voices, a sound beyond the scale of living things. I always forgave R. when he missed our meetings, I accepted any excuse he offered, whatever my annoyance I never complained. I wanted to think of this as patience, as understanding of R.’s many complications, though really I knew it was fear; I would push him away if I demanded too much.
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