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What is our fascination with stories of prostitution? Beyond the prurient thrill, these narratives raise the aching issue of what should perhaps not be for sale in this world. Like God, art, and love, sex can try to give the lie to money, but ultimately all those things can be bought and sold, and it is easiest and most convenient to turn our transactions with them into, well, transactions. Prostitutes = pure sex-on-demand. Just plunk down your money. But, as soon as you do, you want more. You want to get more, and you want to give more. So may the prostitute. So you keep plunking, but unless you trim your expectations, in which case why bother, you never get what you really want. Intimacy for sale thus poses a fascinating existential dilemma. The unnamed hero of Garth Greenwell’s Mitko understands this dilemma well, even as he succumbs to the allure of the novel’s title character, a 23-year-old construction worker kept off – and on – the streets of Sofia by a stable of paying priyateli, Bulgarian for “friends.”
The narrative in which Greenwell embodies the sex-for-sale dilemma is beautifully low-key. Intrinsic to the novel’s point is that there are no Terrible Secrets: Mitko is not going to rob or assault the narrator or ask him to run drugs. He will not turn out to have mob connections, etc., etc. Those are not the kinds of crisis points that interest Greenwell. Instead, like the fine poet he is (this is his first novel), he sets his seismograph to capture the slightest tremors and shifts of a contrived relationship built on and generating very real desires, thoughts, and emotions. These tremors and shifts are indeed slight, gestures and revelations all perfectly common, yet Greenwell can tenderly probe the way eyes meet, the timing of when we get into or out of bed, or the way we feel our way toward a self-destructive choice, and suddenly our own grubby desires and habits feel new and, most importantly, worthy of notice, explication, and forgiveness.
The book’s crisis, when it comes, is a simple event precipitated by a few mundane details. Yet those details and that event give the narrator the greatest gift: his freedom, and so, of course, his true self. That freedom, and the capacity to bear it, are foreshadowed when the narrator recalls a stroll he took in the Bulgarian countryside after Mitko left his life. He drifts through a glorious, fecund Eden, making us think of Mitko as a devil, inevitably sought by the narrator, confounding him, and by extension mankind, with the torturous, inevitable riddle of desire and money.
I could have foregone two of Greenwell’s aesthetic affectations. He writes in long paragraphs, just 46 of them in 86 pages; we thus turn pages to be confronted again and again by monolithic rectangles of type that feel exhausting and impenetrable. I can imagine a justification, pardon the pun, in aesthetic terms, but the visceral effect is more off-putting than it need be. The author also enjoys parenthetical asides, as many as three per page, which is more than it sounds like. Many of these phrases, or at least the parentheses around them, seem narratively unnecessary, as much as their qualifications and equivocations reflect the way writers, poets especially perhaps, process feelings and images in their quest for les mots justes. Both the asides and the monolithic layout often obscure the small, internal revelations whose accretion forms the real plot of Mitko. I was pleasantly astonished at how many more revelations sprang up and how much more engaged, empathic and vulnerable the narrator became when I read Mitko a second time, more at ease with what I was looking at.
I was grateful to have understood that I needed to read Mitko a second time, and I would recommend two reads to anyone who comes in contact with this book. Two times through Greenwell’s book still makes just 172 pages, shorter than a single read of many another book, and well worth it.
Reviewed by David Pratt