Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell is a very dirty book. I confess, I was a bit shocked. Maybe more surprised than shocked, but still.

Mr. Greenwell’s depiction of sex is probably more detailed than what most of us expect to find in a random book from the public library. Which is what Cleanness was for me. Cleanness is not a new book, so I must have found it while wondering through the stacks–I honestly can’t remember what shelf it was on. New Books? Lucky Day? Pride Books? Whoever decides which books to feature cover out on the shelves of the stacks at my local library does a very good job; I typically find three or four that I want to check out. I was probably just wondering around browsing.

Turns out, Cleanness fits right in with one of my guilty pleasure reading favorites. Not for the sex but for the kind of limbo the main character is in throughout the book. The narrator is an English teacher in contemporary Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. He lives in a kind of stasis, on his own in a decaying city, having stayed long past the time when he should have moved on not just geographically but emotionally. It’s time for him to get on with things in general, which he does at the close of the novel when he leaves Sofia for good. In the meantime, he meets a couple of men whom he takes to bed and has a two-year relationship with a student from Portugal.

There should be a name for this sort of situation, people living in cities not their own, kind of stuck there or literally stuck there, in a place but not really a part of that place. Think of Death in Venice or almost anything by Olivia Manning. Hemingway’s Paris or Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin. There’s always a slightly lonely narrator/main character who exists a bit outside of his own timeline, watching rather than experiencing. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Something about that kind of story appeals to me; it ought to have a name. Through extended vacation stays I’ve had a taste of this experience–a month in Chicago, nearly a month in Paris, a week in Santa Fe, two weeks in Portugal. Stays that lasted long enough to find a favorite restaurant, the local market, the nearby pharmacy. To experience what it must be like to live there without really living there.

There really should be a word for it.