Garth Greenwell’s new novel What Belongs To You begins in the public bathroom of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria.
There, Greenwell’s protagonist, an unnamed American teacher living in the capital city, pays local street hustler Mitko for sex in one of the toilet stalls. The willowy Mitko – with a broken front tooth and dirty sodden clothes – is ‘cordial and brash, entirely public in that place of intense privacies.’ With his overly friendly demeanour and unselfconscious attitude, Mitko breaks with the discretion and privacy that usually characterises cruising in public toilets.
Over the course of several months, the unidentified teacher returns again to Mitko for sex, as Greenwell begins to blur the boundaries of their burgeoning relationship. Their meetings soon take place beyond the perimeters of the National Palace’s toilets – namely at the teacher’s apartment – and become less defined by sex and more by a need for the pair to ward off loneliness.
Since its publication in the United States in January, What Belongs To You has received universal critical acclaim, enjoying a level of publicity most debut novelists would envy. Many reviewers note Greenwell’s literary talents, including his rich and lyrical prose. Others have commented on the way he so masterfully unravels the consequences of unchecked sexual desire and the universality of longing for a meaningful connection with another human being.
Approached through a queer lens, Greenwell’s novel provides a complex exploration of ‘cruising’, looking into how many gay men act on their sexual desires and negotiate finding sex in public.
To the unfamiliar, cruising is a practice where gay and bisexual men – or, more simply, men who have sex with men – have discreet sexual encounters in public spaces. Many men cruise public areas like train stations, public bathrooms, and parks. Areas that are known as being popular cruising spots are usually referred to as ‘beats’.
In an age of online hook-up apps like Scruff and Grindr, cruising has become less popular in the gay community, with sexual gratification now far more accessible than ever online. Nevertheless, cruising has long acted as a core part of gay life, figuring as an important political act that allowed men to negotiate homosexual urges and acts, especially during times of homophobic surveillance and anti-sodomy laws. Because homosexuality has been politically, culturally and socially ‘unspeakable’, many men turned to cruising to realise and act on their sexual desires. Cruising itself subverted the idea that homosexuality had no role in public life, entirely acted out unseen by men in public. With the increased acceptance and visibility of LGBT identities in society today, cruising as sex has now lost some of its political potency.
One of the most infamous representations of cruising is The Exorcist director William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a heterosexual New York police officer assigned to go undercover and catch a serial killer operating out of New York’s gay leather scene. Despite, or perhaps because of the fierce backlash the film sparked in the gay community, Friedkin’s intensely homophobic film became the dominant cultural representation of cruising, long before television series like Queer as Folk or films like Stranger By The Lake offered more favourable and complex depictions of gay men having sex in public places.
By identifying the hustler Mitko but maintaining his protagonist’s anonymity, Greenwell actively takes up the issues of cruising and subverts some of the codes defining it. When men cruise other men, words, if any, are rarely exchanged – instead, the act is instigated by eye contact, a hand gesture, or a subtle but suggestive body movement. Part of the thrill of cruising is that it is fleeting, anonymous, and never defined as being ‘gay’ per se, and hence it can appeal to men who may be in the closet, or who just do not identify as gay – it is regarded more as an act of instant sexual gratification, unfettered from sexual identity despite its long history in gay culture.
Things become problematic for Greenwell’s American teacher once he and Mitko take their sexual relationship beyond the public bathroom – an act that violates the laws of cruising, which is all about anonymity and publicness. Cruising is ultimately a simple transaction – sex in public spaces. So when it crosses over to a private space, such as the teacher’s bedroom, the terms of the interaction completely change, and the teacher and Mitko’s relationship becomes increasingly confused and fraught.
Mitko is an exciting and alluring companion to the teacher, not only as a sexual partner but also a friend of sorts, because Mitko has no filter and distorts the lines between friend and fuck-buddy, hustler and lover. Mitko happily discusses sexual services in between the stalls of the bathroom, or freely browses gay escort websites and Skype chats with other men while at the teacher’s apartment. Mitko is so enigmatic because of these oxymoronic qualities – supremely confident in himself while fucking men in a bathroom, but heavily guarded about his own sexual activities.
To Greenwell, Mitko ultimately embodies many of the contradictory readings of the act of gay male cruising. He shows how men who have sex with other men in public often seek it out less for sex and more to offset the aching loneliness that so often can define the gay experience. In setting the novel in Bulgaria, a country of few opportunities and a flagging economy, Greenwell highlights that those who can escape the country usually do and compounds Mitko’s loneliness. In this way he painfully reminds us that in the aftermath of the pair’s relationship, as the American teacher moves on, Mitko will struggle to survive, subsisting on the little money and fleeting companionship strange men can offer him.
But What Belongs To You offers a compelling portrait of contemporary gay life, mobilising the longstanding history of cruising to queer existence. Greenwell uses this to demonstrate not only how shame and desire are often paired experiences, but to also underscore the loneliness that drives so many to seek out companionship – sometimes in the most public of places.
What Belongs To You is available now through Readings.