It begins in a bathroom in Bulgaria where men go to have sex with each other. Max Freeman

My first impression of Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You was that the writer had a headlong relationship with language, was a bit out of control, was maybe new to sentences, new to semicolons and verbs, what with the lightly eccentric ways he was using them. What Belongs to You begins with the narrator meeting a 23-year-old in a bathroom and paying him for sex, the hustler's "frame and voice and friendliness all hemmed in by the damp tile of the walls"—hemmed being a strange verb choice. The 23-year-old is named Mitko, and soon the unnamed narrator is taking him home, "Mitko's long legs devouring the pavement as I struggled to keep up"—devouring, again, being confusing, the pavement having presumably stayed in place.

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As for semicolons, they are everywhere in What Belongs to You, except in some of the very places they would be most appropriate, like when the narrator and Mitko get back to the narrator's place and Mitko gets on the computer and starts showing off photos of his first lover. "As if he sensed my sadness and shared it and wanted to give it voice, Mitko opened a new page, a Bulgarian site for video clips, where one can find almost anything, copyright laws have little meaning here." Considering the author's promiscuous use of semicolons elsewhere, it's eccentric not to have one before "copyright."

But around 40 pages in, the breathlessness began to seem intentional, as if breathlessness itself is this book's subject. During one of their later hookups, Mitko seems detached, keeps glancing at the television:

And when I asked him what was wrong he just shrugged and answered that he had already had sex that afternoon, which seemed like a breach of contract, though I suppose I had no real basis for complaint. I fell back from him then, I lay next to him thinking, as I had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn't welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.

These "little theaters of heat," these packets of desire or panic or imminence, these doublings-down of doubt and upswellings of confidence—these concentrations of feeling are Greenwell's subject. The novel is explicitly set in Bulgaria, but implicitly it is set on the staging ground of intensity itself. For all its attempts to get outdoors (the sea, a hike, train rides), it is a novel most compelling at its most interior. Physical reality seems to melt around the novel's hot core of feeling. This explains the hyperbolic or melodramatic use of verbs; how could you write about excesses of desire if the language didn't reflect those excesses?

The narrator is not shy about how drawn he is to intensity; the word itself arises time and again. In the first paragraph, in the men's room, Mitko is described as "cordial and brash, entirely public in that place of intense privacies." Three pages later, "Mitko looked at me again, friendly still but with a new intensity." In a photograph, the narrator observes "an intensity to Mitko's gaze." On a bus, the narrator watches a movie and "in each scene the violence grew more brutal, the tortures more baroque, my own excitement more intense." At one point, Mitko threatens the narrator, tells him how easily he could steal his stuff, and after the narrator kicks him out, "I lay there after he left, feeling my fear, which grew more intense." When the narrator's sister tells him about sneaking out of the house so she could hook up with older men, the narrator knows "that soon she would desire other and more intense experiences, drawn forward by those appetites we share."

Greenwell's gift is to render the intensity so intensely that you can't help but be pulled into its morass.

Before you know it, you're in a verbal vortex, one of the most intense rhetorical gambits of the book, a forty-one-page paragraph that includes the narrator getting an erection while showering with his dad and, later, another relative being beaten to death with a wrench. The wrench had been sitting on an engine and was red-hot, and the killer's hand was "always a little bit curled" after that—again with the facts of the physical world melting around the heat of someone's feeling.

Just as the relative killed by the wrench was punished over a perceived sexual transgression, so the narrator of What Belongs to You is punished for the sexual transgression of going home with the hustler. From Mitko, the narrator contracts that most literary of diseases: syphilis. The bureaucratic rigmarole the narrator has to endure after Mitko tells him he has syphilis and that he should go get tested seems almost explicitly designed to humiliate the narrator, involving multiple clinics, a paucity of treatment options, and a female medical professional who acts surprised or disappointed when the narrator doesn't fall apart upon hearing the news he does indeed have syphilis, "as if she had been cheated of an intended effect."

I had wondered if AIDS was going to come up, had been surprised as I turned past page 100 and it still hadn't, not even subtextually, not even hinted at—after all, there was bathroom sex, there was hustler sex, there was the shame of the family... Where was the inevitable AIDS? (Where but in my own guilty psyche?) On the one hand, I was planning to admire the book as very contemporary if it was never going to mention AIDS, and on the other, I was planning to hold it against the book as a crucial omission given the narrator's age, which is roughly the same as mine. AIDS anxiety is so deeply central to the psyche of this particular generation of gay men—gay men who were children or teenagers in the 1980s and '90s—that I was shocked not to see even its aftereffect. But then it came up. As undoubtedly it would. As the narrator is sitting in a clinic in Bulgaria, he notices some brochures:

The images were familiar from other waiting rooms I had sat in, the stock visual language of medical admonishment and reassurance. For all that I avoided such offices these images, with their warnings about precaution and prevention, had long been part of my most private sense of myself. I grew up at the height of the AIDS panic, when desire and disease seemed essentially bound together, the relationship between them not something that could be managed but absolute and unchangeable, a consequence and its cause. Disease was the only story anyone ever told about men like me where I was from, and it flattened my life to a morality tale, in which I could either be chaste or condemned.

The way the story of AIDS became "part of my most private sense of myself" mirrors the way his father's disgust became the narrator's disgust with himself, and it maps the way that all externalized experience has the power to reconstitute the perceiver. It is hard to imagine how this warping of the self could be dramatized better than through Greenwell's swerving, changeable, breathless sentences—including his semi-consistent semicolons and his occasionally overbaked verbs. We never see the narrator the way someone would see him from the outside—we never get a description of his face, we never get a description of his body, we never get a description of his penis—but we are given access to an interior radiance that's blazing and singular, and has much to say about language, about class, about heritage, about desire, about deceit. The contradictions of feeling and lived experience run rampant through these pages, as the narrator variously succumbs to and resists the pressures of prurience and curiosity and doubt. And yet he never disappears up his own ass. The story is compelling in spite of its bareness, compelling enough that, toward the end, I started to resent anything in the outside world that prevented me from continuing to read.

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You know a book has its grip on you if the world within it is so rich, so exquisitely tense, that you resent the real one for keeping you from it.

Garth Greenwell will be at Elliott Bay Book Company on March 29.