Cleanness boldly and importantly explores actual gay sex in its full complex and compulsive nature.
Garth Greenwell’s writing is the kind of writing that is so crisp and haunting, so elegiacally beautiful, that it is immediately claimed by the literary mainstream. Surely prose so intelligent and introspective, so worldly and relatable, must transcend categorization? Surely it must belong to everyone?
The joy of reading Greenwell – for this reader, at least – is how magnificently gay it is. Greenwell is heir apparent to living legends like Edmund White and departed ones like James Baldwin in that he writes things about the gay male experience that feel as if they have not been written before. That feel like they belong to our community and ours alone. For that reason, Greenwell’s fiercely sexy new novel Cleanness is something gay readers won’t want to share. After centuries of reading about the sexual conquests of straight men, Greenwell’s peeling away of the layers of desire, confusion, evolution and role-playing that accompany the gay sexual experience is revelatory for the gay reader.
Told in nine linked short stories, Cleanness tells of a young American teaching abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria. As these circumstances greatly resemble Greenwell’s own, it could (again, recalling White) be classified as autofiction, particularly when taken as a companion piece to Greenwell’s previous novel, 2016’s aching romantic drama What Belongs to You (itself an extension of his 2011 novella Mitko). But whether or not the book is biographical is hardly the point. Its content, revolving around a string of romances that last from a few fleeting minutes to prolonged stretches of time, so thoroughly explores the pain and pleasure of the gay male sexual experience that Cleanness is somehow universal despite its gorgeous specificity.
Essays have and will be written about the aforementioned quality of Greenwell’s prose, but what really makes it work as a means of relaying a story is how interior it is. It’s as if Greenwell has unlocked a way of channeling the thoughts and emotions of his narrator directly into the reader. While similarly excellent wordsmiths use their words to feats of imagery or scene-setting, Greenwell uses his prose in service of the mental battles faced in the sexual life of a young, passionate gay man.
Specifically, Greenwell eloquently explains the nearly unexplainable contrast between the overwhelming flurry of decision-making and the laser-focused recklessness that accompany gay sex. Being gay is a minefield of label-making and role-playing. Tops and bottoms, doms and subs, partiers, daddies, bears, otters, twinks, trade, johns, and many more. What is so often ignored in gay characters (and gay people, for that matter), is the ability, desire and even need to traverse the borders laid down by these categories. Greenwell lays them out beautifully here, and he does this by letting us see our narrator see himself. Not only are we in his head, but he so keenly observes the responses of his lovers that we understand him from inside and from the outside in. Greenwell shows us the paradoxical manner in which the narrator can suffer crises of confidence and poke at old wounds while also chasing and attracting a milieu of sexy and interesting lovers.
Though the book is technically a collection of linked stories, the tone is so consistent and the overall arc so propulsive that Cleanness eschews the typical peaks and valleys that come with story collections, though “The Frog King” and “The Little Saint” stand out as exceptional standalone (and very different) love stories. Outside of the narrator, what links these stories is the primary setting of Sofia, Bulgaria. Anyone who has visited the small European capital will know it to be a beautiful contrast of the old and the new, of pre-Soviet and post-Soviet and of urban and wild, with the tree-swathed Rila Mountains and other natural wonders looming just outside the city’s borders. But Greenwell, by telling this story through the eyes of an American, also lightly touches on the political and societal differences that accompany our approach to gay sex.
Which is what the novel keeps coming back to. Gay sex. Though this is, of course, a novel about beauty and relationships, about travel and education, in the end it is about gay sex. Other books, like the lovely, sun-kissed romance of Call Me by Your Name or the powerful, regretful Lie with Me are heralded as sexy, literary gay novels yet feature very little actual sex. Cleanness boldly and importantly explores actual gay sex in its full complex and compulsive nature. Some of it is hot, some of it is weird, some of it romantic, some of it painful. This is what makes it a book that many of us have been waiting for, and this is why we’ll want to keep it all to ourselves.