Author: Garth Greenwell
On paper, this novel isn’t one that I usually would have picked up of my own volition. It centres on a gay American man residing in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, who seeks sex and connection in a public bathroom and gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. But this debut novel from Garth Greenwell succeeded in hooking me in, and left me impressed by the author’s skill and style.
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The protagonist (who remains nameless throughout the story) meets a young, beguiling man by the name of Mitko in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture, a common meeting place for gay men in Sofia. Although their encounters are purely physical and transactional, the protagonist is drawn to Mitko in a way that he cannot explain to himself. As their relationship develops Mitko’s character is slowly revealed to us, and a sinister undertone creeps to the surface.
Told in three parts, the middle portion deals with the protagonist’s sexual awakening as a teenager and the fraught past he has left behind in Kentucky. All of the threads common to stories like this are here—shame, secrecy, desire—and we find out why he has ended up on another continent, estranged from everything familiar.
The story slides along at a slow pace, building tension and unease, and it examines the ways in which we all try to connect to others. This is definitely ‘literary fiction’ but I found it to be captivating and readable in a way that other examples of this type of novel aren’t. One particular segment, in which the protagonist watches a housefly trapped in the bus he is riding on, is unexpectedly beautiful and moving. With his clean and compelling prose, Greenwell seems poised for literary fame.