Garth Greenwell has been taken by surprise.
The author, who calls Louisville his hometown, and his first novel, "What Belongs to You," have received glowing reviews from outlets including The New York Times and the New Yorker. Words like "masterful" and "incandescent" have been used to describe the story of an American teacher in Bulgaria and his relationship with a young Bulgarian hustler. Publisher's Weekly called it "the first great novel of 2016."
But Greenwell, 38, said he expected the novel to be quickly forgotten soon after publication, like "almost every book published."
"It's bewildering to me that it's been received the way it has been," said Greenwell, back in Louisville this week for a reading at Carmichael's bookstore.
He started writing "What Belongs to You" when he was living in Bulgaria, teaching at the American College of Sofia. He was the only openly gay person at the school where he taught, and he found himself becoming a resource for gay and questioning students.
"The stories they told, and also the stories that gay men I met who were my own age told, were exactly the stories I heard in Kentucky when I was 14, 15 and 16. I kept thinking, the horizon of possibility that gay people have for their lives here is the same as it was in Kentucky in the early '90s," Greenwell said.
Greenwell was a voice student at Louisville's Youth Performing Arts School, and left Louisville at age 16 to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. He had already completed an master of fine arts degree in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, and had done three years worth of work towards a doctorate at Harvard, before moving to Bulgaria. He wrote the novel while he was teaching school, getting up at 4:30 each morning to get in some writing time before class.
"I was writing by hand in a notebook, in the dark before dawn, in this neighborhood of Sofia that is full of these Soviet-style apartment blocks, where if I wasn't teaching that day I could go days without ever speaking English," Greenwell said. "So writing became sort of my only contact with English."
The story that forms the first part of "What Belongs to You" was first published in 2011 as a novella titled "Mitko," which is the name of the young man that the narrator becomes involved with. They first meet in a public bathroom, one of several locations in the city where gay men seek each other out for sex. Greenwell said the depiction of cruising culture is one of the reasons he thinks the book has hit a nerve, and why he wanted to write it: to illustrate a different kind of gay community.
He noted last summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively legalizing same-sex marriage, and what that has meant to public images of gay life.
"That battle was fought and won at a really great cost," he said. "And the cost was, it required packaging gay lives in a certain way, to make them acceptable to people who are disgusted by them. It meant presenting queer life through a model that looks a lot like heterosexual life, where you have a monogamous partnership that is centered on the raising of a child. It's important that that model be recognized and validated as legitimate, but it's not the only model of queer life."
As a gay teenager in Louisville in the 1990s, Greenwell said he felt ostracized by society and his family, and he took solace in books, particularly "Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin and "A Boy's Own Story" by Edmund White.
"Those books saved my life. Because if everything around me was telling me my life had no value, those books said something different," said Greenwell. "They were the first things that offered me a different vision of my life, and that suggested that my life had the full measure of human dignity."
"What Belongs to You" will be published in translation in Bulgaria in the fall, which was important to Greenwell. There are no parallels of gay literature in Bulgarian, Greenwell said, and he hopes his book might help open the door.
"My greatest hope is that Bulgarian gay writers will read this book and say, 'Everything about this is wrong. This American doesn't get it. And I have to write the book that does get it,'" Greenwell said. "That would be the happiest fate for my book in the world."
Greenwell reads from "What Belongs To You" at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Carmichael's on Frankfort Avenue. More information can be found here.