BY AMY REARDON
In a craft lecture, I once heard Garth Greenwell describe the mission of his writing as: to bring all the resources of literature to the queer body. Having endured so much hatred, who is more deserving of poetry? he asked, passing out a slim handout, three thin white sheets of paper, double-sided, stapled, and aching with words of want from Gustave Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, Kathy Acker, and Mary McCarthy. Because sex, Greenwell said, is as near to and as far as we go from authenticity.
In his new book Cleanness, a series of stories structured in three tidy parts of three chapters each and so tightly linked one could call it a novel, Greenwell applies the unique pressure of sex on scene and character, as he says, to drive the narrative. The book picks up where Greenwell’s debut 2016 novel What Belongs To You left off, featuring the same unnamed narrator, an American teacher grappling with his desires—the pleasure and the angst of them—in anti-gay Sofia, Bulgaria.
But only sort of. Because whereas in What Belongs to You, the consequences of seeking love are mostly straightforward—relief, ecstasy, yes, but also shame, an STD, a devastating Kentucky-style childhood rejection by a homophobic father—in Cleanness, the consequences of engagement now have become winding and complex.
Sex now also requires the holding of his 21-year-old lover’s own unexamined trauma. “I don’t know, he said, that’s the problem, how can I know what I wanted then, before he did it, how can I know what’s me and what’s what he did to me?” Desire now demands the identification of a line between the teacher’s own sexuality and that of his students. “Maybe he thinks it was an accident … or maybe he was so drunk he would forget it and then the only shame would be a private shame, the shame I was accustomed to, the shame that felt like home.” And—in perhaps the book’s most breathtaking scene—vulnerability now requires the slow, painful unpacking of the teacher’s own, long-buried rage and its inescapable role in his shame: “… I would punish him if it was punishment he wanted. I would tan his hide, I thought, which was another thing my father said when he beat us, I’ll tan your hide; he said it with the voice he used only when he was very angry, the voice of his childhood, his country voice.”
The word “cleanness” appears only once, in the center of the book, offering the key to the book’s title. “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” Which brings us to the other difference in Greenwell’s new work: love, at last. The central love story mostly takes place in “The Frog King,” a chapter The New Yorker ran last year. Greenwell then described it as an exercise in capturing the joy of a lover’s escape to Bologna and Venice. The story is all shared mini-bottles of prosecco, making out in public alleys, high arches of ancient churches, ironic street art, hours and hours of walking through cobblestone streets of European villages, shared treats and murmurs with stray dogs, and achingly, gratefully, the placing of row upon row of kisses upon a lover’s body. “It was a kind of blazon of him, of his body, I love you, I whispered again and again to him. And then, when I had laid that last line across his forehead—a garland, I thought, I had garlanded him—You are the most beautiful, I said to him, you are my beautiful boy.”
One could read Greenwell for the intimacies alone, the slowing and dissecting of human connection, the tiny cues between lovers, pet names like “Skupi,” shortened to “Skups.” “We parted after a second or two, but not before I heard R. make a sound I had come to love, a little grunt of happiness, a homecoming sound, and all my irritation drained away.” But more important, I think, one goes to Greenwell to remember that we are not all clean, all dirty, all good, or all bad. He compels us to examine that which is monstrous inside us. Because if we can’t look at what we hate about ourselves, then how will we ever know intimacy? How can we ever hold space for others in their pain, grief, and failure?
It is this ambivalence, the holding of opposing emotions together at the same time, that is the book’s greatest achievement. For example, in “The Little Saint” the teacher intends to use a condom with a stranger—one who purposely eschews HIV testing—but then proceeds without it. In this moment, as a mother, I want to shake him and scream: What are you doing? But as a woman, reading “The Frog King,” I want to whisper: Love me like that.
This is, I think, Greenwell’s point. Because don’t we go to fiction to find empathy and compassion? Cleanness meets us at our most vulnerable, on the floor with a stray dog named Mama, searching for a humble slice of love and warmth. “We’ll sleep, I said again, and she rolled onto her side, her stomach toward me, and placed one of her paws against my chest. It would leave a mark, I knew, I would have to scrub it out in the morning, but what did it matter, I thought as I closed my eyes, what does it matter, why not let it stay.” In a moment when so many of us are at work negotiating our right to take up space in a world that asks us to make ourselves small, Greenwell gives us a story of desire and shame so very specific as to be universal.
Amy Reardon’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal, Glamour, and The Coachella Review. She is an alumna of Stanford’s OWC in Novel Writing and an MFA candidate at UC Riverside. Follow her @ReardonAmy.