Writers & Books earlier this year announced its 2016 Debut Novel Series selections, which are "What Belongs to You" by Louisville, Kentucky-native Garth Greenwell, and "Wreck and Order" by Upstate New York resident Hannah Tennant-Moore. On November 3 and 4, both authors will visit Rochester to partake in a number of joint readings, discussions, and signings.
Each of the works pose a central character living or traveling outside of their native America, bearing witness to the different shapes and shades of the world while in search of something nameless to connect themselves to it.
Greenwell's "What Belongs to You" is narrated by an American teacher in economically depressed Bulgaria who develops a volatile connection with a young hustler, Mitko, after meeting him in a cruising spot under the National Palace of Culture in Sofia. The book evolved from Greenwell's 2010 novella, "Mitko."
Connections that erupt along the edges of an abyss are prone to exploitation, typically on the more vulnerable end of the equation, but often enough on both sides. This is true in Greenwell's book — although Mitko's survival is dependent upon his "friends," and his life is full of instability, he exerts a calculated power over their desire and lust.
But this fact of transaction does not necessarily preclude the possibility for tenderness and compassion, which is a theme that the book grapples with as Mitko's circumstances take him through increasingly darker spaces, and his beauty and vitality diminish.
The narrator remains nameless and faceless, but scraps of reverie shed light on other parts of him. He methodically pins and poetically dissects every situation and concept. His seemingly preternatural knack for honing in on any subtext, even through language barriers, is a trait arguably born of his experience as a gay youth the American South.
"What Belongs to Us" does the messy, hideous work of trawling the complex depths of human connection and desire. But with such richly precise navigation of that territory, it feels fitting that Greenwell leaves his readers adrift, without a comfortable place to land.
Although its setup is similar to Elizabeth Gilbert's notoriously feel-good book, "Eat, Pray, Love," Tennant-Moore's "Wreck and Order" doesn't punctuate with a fairytale resolution; it provides a sense of ongoingness of a life journey. But before that, the story's young protagonist, Elsie, introduces herself and her intense dissatisfaction with life. An under-stimulating job writing newspaper obituaries and an abusive, dead-end relationship sends her sprawling to find something more in Sri Lanka. (Increasingly, former colonies are the new European dalliance for quarter-life-crisis white girls.)
But Elsie doesn't derive some magical understanding of the world through backpacking, and bounces. Tennant-Moore then sees her young anti-heroine, having stumbled upon an advanced level of stable in the form of the clean-cut, responsible Brian, decide to have another go at the unsettled fun of ex-boyfriend Jake.
The story experiences a second start when Elsie is invited back to Sri Lanka by an acquaintance. Inside the home her host, Suriya, readers are slapped with the contrast between Elsie's feminist freedom to tally orgasms and philosophize every detail of her existence, and the crushing servitude that Sri Lankan women bear with grace.
Elsie's biggest struggle is with emptiness — a problem of which she's perfectly aware. After an adequate sexual encounter with Jake, she narrates that she "looked at the ceiling, immobilized by satisfaction, a state that can feel a lot like despair." But at the same time, she declares hollow-sounding affirmations of feeling good and feeling love, as if trying to convince herself rather than living the reality. Near the story's closing, Elsie states that she's unwilling to share the most transformative parts of her journey, which more than hints they have yet to transpire.
Events related to the literary selections kick off on Tuesday, November 1, 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., with a discussion at Writers & Books moderated by Rochester Reads and Debut Novel Series Coordinator Karen vanMeenen.
On Thursday, November 3, Greenwell and Tennant-Moore will read passages from their novels during an on-air call-in at 1 p.m. on Connections with Evan Dawson, WXXI Radio 1370 AM.
On Friday, November 4, both authors will give a free public reading, panel-discussion, and book signing at 1 p.m. at Nazareth College. Also on Friday, from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., they will offer a second reading, panel-discussion, and signing, followed by a discussion on the publishing process, at Writers & Books, for $12 ($10 members).
The novels are available for purchase at Writers & Books now. For a full schedule and more information, visit wab.org.