my book world
I read Greenwell’s more recent novel, Cleanness, first, a few months earlier. It almost seems that that novel about a young American teacher of high school literature in Sofia, Bulgaria, could be a sequel to this one, Greenwell’s first. If “R” is the same “R” in both novels, then the narrator meets “R” in this the first novel, but he is not in the picture much.
No, this is indeed a different novel. In Part I, “Mitko,” the narrator meets the eponymous hustler, in a public rest room and gets entangled in his life of drugs, though not as a user himself. The narrator is charmed by the sparely built, handsome young man, so much so that he gives him money for various enterprises until he realizes he is only enabling Mitko. Mitko is sent on his way though he will make more appearances.
In Part II, “Grave,” the narrator is informed of his father’s death and returns to the States. In a long passage, that is both expansive and yet compressed, readers learn how the almost idyllic relationship he has with his father as a boy comes to an end when he confesses to his father that he is gay. Almost every gay man in the world can identify with the sense of rejection and betrayal the narrator feels.
In “Pox,” Part III, Mitko returns to inform the narrator that he has not only contracted syphilis but that the narrator and his lover, “R,” both need to get tested. The disease seems to be an apt metaphor for the poison that the three of them share at this point. Mitko is surprised when the narrator indicates it’s all right. It’s a disease; it’s treatable. “R” is much the same way when he is informed. No harm, no foul. Yet, like a bad penny, Mitko continues to return, wanting to start something up with the narrator again, but he realizes he cannot. One last time he sends Mitko on his way with enough money to buy a meal for his emaciated body and entrain his way back to his home town. In a moving final scene, the narrator entertains his mother who has never traveled outside the U.S. before. On a train trip, in a roomy but unairconditioned first class compartment with several others, the narrator is charmed by a young boy, who, he ultimately realizes, reminds him of Mitko: the same intelligence, the same robust fight with the world to be his own person. The powerful novel ends with the narrator at the clinic being told that they do not have the shots to treat his disease. He will have to go elsewhere for salvation.
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