Is “What Belongs To You” Truly An Instant Classic?

Back when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers I used to feel that my colleagues sometimes had a pack mentality. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo across the nation. The raves were sometimes so over-the-top they often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really stupendous? When I’d go on a tour for one of my own books, people at all sorts of venues would take me aside and confess that they didn’t like this latest literary sensation, and seemed embarrassed to admit it.

Last year, the panegyrics about Iowa MFA graduate Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You  put me off, especially one by James Wood in The New Yorker, since he’s not a critic whose opinion I rely on. But when a student recently told me he was reading the book, I decided to check it out.

The narrator’s a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a hustler he meets in a public toilet. One British reviewer said the novel made her tremble; another hailed it as “incandescent”; a New York Times reviewer hailed the novel as an “instant classic.” Many reviewers have marveled at the prose, but I found too much of it dull and straining for effect. Using initials for characters’ names also seemed like a gimmick to make the book feel edgy.

But the major problem I had was with the hustler who’s a dull, obnoxious, demanding, dishonest grifter. We’re supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features are a chipped tooth and a big penis. The sex scenes are very bland, which is problematic since the narrator’s obsession is what drives the plot forward, or at least nudges it. The novel’s framing sections are just way too languid. The middle section works best because the prose is more direct and compelling, less writerly, as we experience the narrator’s terrible nightmare of shame growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book, and my iPad screen didn’t get brighter on its own, but I felt the author was more deeply engaged. He spoils it, though, when he has the narrator find a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of the section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Did we really need a heavy-handed reminder that the narrator was trapped in Sofia and living on emotional crumbs? This was like one of those melodramatic songs at the end of a movie whose lyrics explain what you just saw–in case you weren’t paying attention for the previous two hours.  I almost stopped reading at that point because it struck me as the sign of a writer who didn’t have faith in his readers’ intelligence.  Or in his own talent.  I kept going though the novel never really recovered from that low point.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in many genres, from memoir to mystery. His most recent book explores police over-reaction: Assault With a Deadly Lie, which was a Midwest Book Award finalist.

Was Gore Vidal a Bigot?

I grew up watching Gore Vidal on TV and enjoying his wit. He was a liberal version of William F. Buckley, Jr.: witty, insanely well-read, cosmopolitan, and delightfully snide. But like Buckley, he oozed privilege and contempt, and his act could wear thin.

Gore Vidal during a Los Angeles interview in 1974.

I think that’s why he’s never been a favorite author of mine. Though I’ve read a handful of his novels over the years and his memoir Palimpsest, none of his books made that great an impression on me. I do remember him wafting through Anais Nin’s Diaries where he seemed fascinating and somewhat creepy, a young man on the make.  Nin’s take on him was almost more interesting than Vidal himself.

A writer friend recently recommended that I read Jay Parini’s new Vidal biography just as I’d finished reading a review essay about it in the New Yorker.  That piece offered me an insight into Vidal I’d never expected.  In the late 70s, Vidal told the novelist Martin Amis that he’d been reading D. H. Lawrence and this is what he thought about Lawrence:

“Every page I think, Jesus, what a fag. Jesus, what a faggot this guy sounds.”

Where do you start to unpack lines like that?  Despite his attempts to blur the question, Vidal was gay, lived with a man and only had sex with men.  And here he was, using “faggot” as invective.  But putting that aside, what did he find in Lawrence’s work that evoked so much contempt?  Vidal comes across in that bizarre outburst as an anti-intellectual boob, a yahoo–or a bigot.

Unless he was simply jealous.  Because Lawrence reached artistic heights Vidal couldn’t even approach.  Lawrence is one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.  Can Vidal even compare?  Has he written anything as profound or beautiful as Women in Love?

D.H.-Lawrence-006I’ve been reading and re-reading Lawrence for years.  He can definitely be excessive and melodramatic, but his soaring prose always moves me, and so does his grasp of human psychology and his understanding of how passion can shipwreck us. Lawrence’s depth of feeling, his imagery, and his rhapsodic voice always blow me away when I return to his fiction.

I’ve never revisited any book of Vidal’s and I’ve never wanted to. The New Yorker piece quotes some of Vidal’s work but it left me as cold as the anecdotes of his studied hauteur. I’d happily read a new biography of Lawrence, though.  And it’s probably time for me to go back to Women in Love, which I’ve read a handful of times.  Or perhaps some of his wonderful short fiction.  Or his pungent, quirky Studies in American Literature.  Or The Fox.  So many terrific choices….

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at

When Book Reviews Go Wrong

Years ago I was reading Publishers Weekly and a reviewer compared a new memoir to The Great Gatsby for its beautiful prose.

Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and I’ve read it many times, so I was puzzled when I read the lines the reviewer quoted as “proof.”  I don’t remember the book now, but I do remember I kept re-reading the excerpt, trying to figure out what I was missing.

By bringing up Fitzgerald, the reviewer set a very high standard, and I suspect I wasn’t the only reader who read the passage he picked and thought, “Seriously?”

I had a somewhat similar experience recently reading a review in The New Yorker of a novel called Black Deutschland.  The title grabbed me, and the setting, because it takes place partly in Berlin, a city I’ve visited a few times and want to revisit soon.  But as I read more of the glowing review, I felt less and less interested, which couldn’t have been the reviewer’s intent.

James Woods wrote that “The Berlin part of [the main character’s] story can seem shapeless, even incoherent in places, though it is never without charm. Sometimes one has the sense….of a stream of consciousness without a stream. Or perhaps it is a consciousness that is missing: [he] can seem an amorphous witness, never quite present in his own sentences.”

Really–this is a novel worth spending time with?

puzzled-lookBut the review was short, and there was the siren call of Berlin, however shapeless and incoherent that was.  So I kept reading, and Woods brought out the heavy guns: quotations from the book. They did the exact opposite of sealing the deal for me.

Despite the gravity of [his] burdens and dilemmas (race, success, sanity, America, Germany), the book’s tone is comic, pleasingly spry, and the prose breaks naturally into witty one-liners: “Manfred had a type: the most attractive woman in the room.” Or this piece of perfected wisdom: “One of the surprises of growing up was finding out what things had been about.”

What’s especially witty in those lines?

The review not only left me uninterested in Black Deutschland, it made me doubt Woods’ taste as a reviewer and think about moving him into the Michiko Kakutani category.  If she praises a book in the New York Times, I usually don’t like it.  And once when she trashed a book, I was so intrigued I went right out to my neighborhood bookstore, bought it, loved it, and wrote the author fan mail.

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault With a Deadly Lie was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.