Last year I was a Lambda judge for debut fiction and to my mind Garth Greenwell’s careful, beguiling new novella Mitkowould have trumped every entry. His craft, authority, and wry observations all confirm the arrival of an exceptional talent. As blurber Honor Moore says, “Mitko is a novella of astonishing force and poignance, and Garth Greenwell’s Sofia, Bulgaria, brings to mind Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin or the Saigon of Marguerite Duras.”
Prepare a place in your permanent pantheon for Mitko B., the tall, slim, big-shouldered, broken-toothed, buzzcut 23 year-old Bulgarian who, very drunk one afternoon in the basement bathroom of the National Palace of Culture, tries to sell our unnamed narrator a paltry sample of weed and, failing that, offers to let the American perform oral sex on him for 10 leva. After a couple more tearoom encounters the narrator invites the homeless Mitko for an overnight in his apartment.
“Never before had I met anyone who combined such transparency (or the semblance of transparency) with such mystery, so that he seemed at once vulnerable, over-exposed, and unrelievedly hidden behind impervious defenses… On my street, the relative prosperity of which marked it off from its neighbors, Mitko turned into a little shop for alcohol and cigarettes… immediately placing both hands palm down on the glass counter, making the shopkeeper wince, and then leaned over to peer at the more expensive bottles where they were displayed on the back wall. He examined several of these, asking the man repeatedly and to his increasing exasperation to pass them over the counter so he could read their labels. In my pre-coital generosity I didn’t balk at the exorbitant result of these deliberations, or at the cheap orange soda he chose to accompany it.”
Before and after sex Mitko is more interested in the narrator’s computer. Shocked at its grime, he first cleans it fastidiously then displays his own hookup profile photo by photo. Bounding out of bed as soon as they’ve finished, he Skypes with older tricks to arrange future meetings and he chats with furtive boys throughout rural Bulgaria whose only connections to gay life are virtual late-night secret sessions hidden from their parents.
“…This was two years ago, he said as I looked at the young man in the image, who stood on Vitosha Boulevard with a bag from one of the posh stores there, his face full to the camera and smiling broadly at whoever held it, showing his unbroken teeth. It was difficult to recognize the man the image as the man beside me; not only was the tooth unbroken, but also his head was unshaved, his hair brown and prosperous, conventionally cut. There was nothing rough or threatening about him at all; he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have taught at the expensive school where I work. It was difficult to listen to him as he continued speaking, as I found myself strangely unnerved, unable to reconcile the change so short a time had wrought. It was hardly possible they could be the same, this prosperous teenager and the man beside me; since I couldn’t reason how a single life might accommodate them both I found myself wondering which life was real, which face (I looked repeatedly from one to the other) was the true face, and how it had been lost or gained.”
Throughout the book, Greenwell expertly explores these “contradictions that, as they alternate and repeat and thus form patterns and reliances, as much as anything else make up the self.” He enlarges that duality to encompass performance honesty and artifice in an overwrought singer who genuinely moves her audience, and ultimately expands the theme to the irreconcilable twin faces of time and memory in this act of storytelling.
The plot too reinforces the self-contradiction, a fence-straddling relationship that has progressed beyond mere transactions but isn’t an actual friendship, since one half of it is never around unless he’s getting paid. Nowhere do the contradictions churn deeper than in sex itself.
“I fell back from him then, I lay next to him thinking, as I had had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed and reflected, even if that reflection is contrived. And also how lonely, even as Mitko was right next to me, naked now and stretched out beside me with his arms behind his head, granting me an unrestricted access that did nothing to assuage my sense of the lack of him, even as it was his warmth next to me that I strove to feel as I brought myself off.”
Get this novella strictly for your enjoyment and illumination. But, if you happen to have been born with an ego, you will also enjoy, as the years pass and future, longer Greenwell books stack up, being able to say you’ve been reading him since Mitko’s debut.
More smart blurbs from Stephen McCauley, David Francis, Robert Boyers, and Margot Livesey after the jump.
“In Mitko Garth Greenwell displays a dazzling ability to negotiate the shadowy boundary between lust and longing. The story is thoroughly modern, but the elegance of his style, his devotion to his characters, and his Jamesian skill in parsing emotions give this narration a timeless quality. A splendid debut.” —Margot Livesey
“Mitko is a haunting and compelling meditation on erotic obsession, loneliness, and power. Garth Greenwell writes with the intensity and urgency of a poet, and his novella takes on the weight and impact of a much longer work of fiction.” —Stephen McCauley
“Garth Greenwell’s Mitko is a work of enormous verbal energy in the service of a vision punishing and remorseless. An anatomy of desire and disappointment in a life “pitched almost always beneath the pitch of poetry” yet captured in language alert to every prospect of beauty, however compromised and fleeting.” —Robert Boyers
“In this lyrical and sophisticated exploration of tormented desire and romantic obsession, Garth Greenwell unfurls a story of love and life in a faraway place that is finely observed and deeply felt. His voice is elegant and original; his prose graceful, seductive and full of yearning.” —David Francis