Book Review: Was Garth Greenwell’s Debut Novel Really An Instant Classic?

Garth Greenwell has a new book out and when he published his debut a few years ago, the response from critics reminded me of my years reviewing for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications.  Back then my colleagues sometimes struck me like a pack of wolves. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo everywhere. The raves often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really earth-shattering?

The panegyrics about What Belongs to You when it came out had put me off, but a creative writing student of mine told me he found it interesting, so I decided to read it.

The narrator was a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who got involved with an increasingly demanding hustler he met in a public toilet. One British reviewer said this novel actually made her tremble, while another hailed it as “incandescent.”  That’s apparently the official word of choice for Greenwell’s work since it’s been applied to his latest book, too.

A New York Times reviewer called that debut an “instant classic” and compared the book to a Jackson Pollack painting, which seemed wildly inappropriate given its overall lack of energy.

Aside from listless prose, the major problem I had was with the obnoxious, dishonest grifter. We were supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to this Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features were a chipped tooth and a big cock.  The sex scenes were minimal and boring, which was problematic since the narrator’s sexual obsession seemed design to drive the book forward.  They didn’t.  It crawled.

While the novel’s framing sections were way too languid, the middle section worked best because the prose was more direct and compelling, less writerly.  In those pages we experienced the narrator’s shameful memories of 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 glow, but I felt the author was far more deeply engaged. He spoiled it, though, when the narrator found a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of that 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.”

Yes, dude.  We totally got it.  The narrator was trapped.  Thanks for clarifying that.  The sequence was like one of those corny songs at the end of a movie filled with lyrics explaining what you just saw in case you were too dimwitted to get it.

Nobody recommended the new book Cleanness to me, but I started it anyway out of morbid curiosity.  I found the same overlong, airless, flat sentences that weighed down his What Belongs to You and had to give up.  Greenwell is hysterically being compared to Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and D.H. Lawrence.  Calls for a Nobel Prize are probably next.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Why I Love Writing Mysteries

I grew up in a household where my parents read a handful of different newspapers in more than one language.  My mother read Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie as well as Thomas Mann and Margaret Mitchell. Not at the same time, mind you, but the model of reading she set for me was broad and enlightening.

That meant I was never told what not to read, and I carried that freedom with me through my school years, reading whatever interested me for whatever reason, delving into science fiction, the history of France, dolphin studies, biographies of the Founding Fathers, you name it. If it grabbed me, I grabbed it off the library shelf and carried it home, curious and expectant.

I was often inattentive in class because I was thinking about my library books, wishing I could be home reading them. Each one seemed to open to a world that was larger, more fascinating, and more liberating than my cramped classroom. Nowadays, I would probably be diagnosed as needing of Ritalin, but what I wanted was escape.

But not just from class. My parents were Holocaust survivors and this dark tragedy too often set the tone for our household: angry, depressed. Reading offered relief and distance, especially the alternate worlds of science fiction and history. Mysteries promised something better once I discovered them: the assurance that things made sense, that evildoers were punished, and order could be restored. It’s the balance Oscar Wilde mocks in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

I’ve published 25 books in many genres and almost a third of those have been mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, satires set in the world of academe. My mother developed dementia before she could see me become successful and before she could read even one mystery of mine.  But writing and publishing each of them, I’ve thought of her. I’ve thought of a woman of wide tastes and deep education, a woman who spoke half a dozen languages, who had a rough smokey laugh–and how mysteries made her happy. Remembering all that makes me happy.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are available from Amazon.