Dr Jack Parlett

Sun, Sea, and Sex

A review of Skyland by Andrew Durbin (Nightboat Books, 2020) and Cleanness by Garth Greenwell (MacMillan, 2020)

I was a few pages into Andrew Durbin’s new book Skyland, about a writer’s pilgrimage from New York to the Greek island of Patmos, when I heard the voice of the Greek Minister of Tourism. It was a Saturday morning towards the end of June and I had the TV on in the background while I was reading — a bad habit, I know, but there’s something about the split attention. It’s a partial tuning in, a way of quelling the anxiety of actually watching the news during lockdown. That morning, the background and foreground seemed almost uncannily in sync. ‘Greece, too, played on my mind’, writes Durbin’s narrator in anticipation of his trip, summoning a montage: ‘The buoyant sea. The grove of olive trees surrounding the Parthenon in Athens. Grilled sardines at the restaurants near Monastiraki Station.’ On the TV, the BBC Breakfast presenters were grilling the tourism minister about travel restrictions in and out of the country while a comparable array of stock images was projected to whet viewers’ appetites: distinctive white houses on a hill, lined up against the unreal blue of the Aegean; impossibly serene beaches; those same, Parthenon-adjacent olive trees. Of course, what this mainly made me want was to be in Greece, but that seemed especially impossible, things being as grey and restricted as they were (and still are, or still might be). Holidays always depend in part upon the imagination and its stoking of potential, but now the things we probably don’t care to think about in reverie — the crowded train to the airport, boarding like sardines in the aircraft’s narrow aisles — have become vivid mental barriers that not even a daydream can break.
            The autofictional narrator of Durbin’s novella, also a writer called Andrew, is deeply interested in the relationship between the imagined and the immediate; the fantasy of escape and the nibbling presence of news from home. He is going to Patmos with his friend Shiv, another writer from New York who has been living in Athens for the past year, in search of an elusive painting of the gay French writer Hervé Guibert. The painting, by Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis, may or may not be on Patmos, and may or may not exist, meaning that this island sojourn already possesses a curious teleology. ‘This isn’t quite the grand, unfurling cliché of travel — “what matters is the journey and not the destination” — since all I want is a destination’, he writes. But also: ‘I’m not sure I need to find exactly what I’m looking for.’ Patmos, an old-fashioned outpost reachable by boat from Athens, is the endpoint of Durbin’s journey, but its rewards are more incipient; cruising boys on the beach, swimming in the ocean, long lunches, and a sense of temporal suspension that may be loaded with possibility or may simply be languorous. On Patmos, they are in a different time zone to America, where the Charlottesville riots have been unfolding, killing one protester — the book takes place in the summer of 2017 — and where a solar eclipse is looming. Durbin’s narrator is under a different sun, some hours ahead of New York time, where the man he has been dating is texting him from. He exists instead in ‘Greek time’, akin to ‘oceanic eddies, underwater cylones, a flow between merging bodies of water’, in which he sometimes ‘swims fast’ and other times ‘goes nowhere at all.’ Still, one imagines that on an island seventy miles from the gay playground of Mykonos, time and action feel a little more proscribed than this.

A rock at the Groikos beach in Patmos island, Greece, 2007. (Courtesy Kalogeropoulos at el.wikipedia).

            Books about gay Americans abroad make, I think, for a unique entry in the literature of vacations. In canonical works of fiction by Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, vacations seem a site of possibility and pathos, a chance to play at what Adam Phillips calls the ‘unlived life’, and a yardstick for characters’ capacities to change, to accept flux into their lives. Customs and mores are altered and tested; selves and identities are broken down and rebuilt; new formations and relationships are forged. When sexuality enters the picture, the impulse to escape or reinvent oneself is thrown further into relief. ‘Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself’, says David, the tortured narrator of James Baldwin’s 1956 Paris novel Giovanni’s Room, a classic of the genre. ‘This is an interesting phrase’, he continues, ‘not current as far as I know in the language of any other people’, but ultimately deceptive: ‘if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home.’ It’s not about the journey, but the destination. Baldwin’s novel attests to the fact that shame can’t ever be truly outrun, but this fact also feels historically particular, the product of a time when gay novels had to end in tragedy, and when a bombed-out Europe was readily available and affordable for closeted American outcasts, and offered at least the illusion of sexual freedom. Indeed, the gay American abroad is something of a fifties trope — think of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote bitching over a bottle of grappa — and it is in the post-war period that this literary sub-genre came into being, anticipated decades earlier, perhaps, by equally romanticised visions of Paris in the twenties.
            In Durbin’s first novel, MacArthur Park, the narrator muses for a moment on a satirical painting from the 1950s by artist Paul Cadmus, which depicts a brassy, abject tableau of American tourists in Rome, with the words ‘Go Away Americans’ scrawled as graffiti on a pillar in the background. In the corner of the painting can be spotted a gaggle of gay men: long-faced, cackling, smoking, ‘big, flamboyant queens out for the night’, in Durbin’s words. Sat on the wall above them, a young man turns to look in their direction. He is olive-skinned and handsome. Cadmus’s brushstrokes make the muscles in his back protrude. It is the kind of look many gay men will recognise, erotic and definite, but also hovering just below detection. His aesthetic ‘look’ is that of trade; the boyish hustler, rough and beguiling. Behind this man is Cadmus himself, observing this scene of watching, adding to the network of gazes. By painting his own watchful countenance into this particular optical scenario, Cadmus also implicates himself. He too lived in Rome in the 1950s, and could thus be counted among the gay American tourists he satirises, even if he doesn’t identify directly with this nelly assemblage. In ‘Bar Italia’, Cadmus captures something of the appeal of European cities for Americans during the summer, the café and cruising cultures, conducive to work and to play, that could be found cheaply and in plain sight. But it also captures a less idyllic element, the local disdain made visible by the words of the graffiti, with the irony being that many of these tourists were also trying to make America, or their Americanness, go away, at least for a while. That such a task is ultimately impossible seems a truth universally acknowledged in this genre, most memorably by Baldwin, who is anything but misty-eyed about the dream of cosmopolitanism. The American in Paris, he writes in his classic essay ‘A Question of Identity’, ‘wishes to be liked as a person’, and ‘does not want to be confused with the Marshall Plan, Hollywood, the Yankee dollar, television, or Senator McCarthy’, though it is a cultural skin that is hard to shed.
            More than this, the gay American of this period also wished to escape the repressive, family-oriented culture of the McCarthy era; to shed traditional ties and seek out more exciting forms of kinship in the Old World. Donald Windham’s 1965 novel Two People, a neglected classic, written in searing but mannered prose, a minor gospel of Italian summers and broken hearts, tells a story in which any such search is doomed not to last. (Windham was friends with Cadmus and also spent many a summer in Italy with his partner Sandy Campbell during the fifties.) Forrest, a middle-aged American man, has extended his stay in Rome after his wife leaves him there, the result of some unknown discord between them. He falls in love with an Italian teenager named Marcello, whom he pays for sex, and the pair embark upon a passionate, complicated affair, weighted by vexed balances of power, and linguistic and cultural differences. Although Forrest is compelled inevitably back to America to be with his wife, Windham’s focus is on what remains, if only in memory. Estrangement places desire under a new aspect, in a Roman love story where we learn not only about two people, but two national cultures, a meaning already present in the novel’s title.
            The most readily notable example of contemporary fiction that belongs to this tradition is the work of Garth Greenwell. Greenwell’s acclaimed 2016 debut What Belongs to You, which tells the story of an American teacher living in Sofia and his relationship with Mitko, a male sex worker he meets in one of the city’s public bathrooms, addresses similar questions of power, sex, and foreignness. It feels customary to say that America ‘haunts’ the novel, in the sense that ‘maybe it’s true that all books about Americans abroad are finally books about America’, as Greenwell writes in an essay on Giovanni’s Room, an important forebear for his own fiction. (Long, Jamesian sentences are another.) Shame is rendered as a legacy, bequeathed through violence by a conservative father in the American South, the landscape against which the narrator’s psychological damage is made viscerally legible. In Cleanness, a collection of short stories published this year and a sequel of sorts, the presence of ‘America’ seems less traumatic. It is a prosaic, even, a fact of origin, the word itself a linguistic tic attending everyday interactions between the narrator and his students or friends or lovers, but also a way of being in time.
            In ‘Mentor’, for example, the collection’s first story, the narrator arranges to meet a G., student of his ‘at the fountain in front of the McDonald’s in Slayekov Square. By my American standards, G. was late.’ These are the first two sentences of the book, but already a globalized scene is set, complete with culturally differing relations to time. If an American past functions as the undertow of What Belongs to You, dragging the narrator backwards to traumatic experiences, it sweeps him in the other direction in Cleanness, towards an unknown future. That he is planning to return to America becomes a structural refrain, barely sketched but palpable, conferring upon his life in Bulgaria a new transience as when, in the title story, the ‘malevolent’ wind from Africa ‘made the city’s cheap construction seem cheaper, more provisional and tenuous, a temporary arrangement — as is true of all places, I know, though it’s a truth I’d rather not acknowledge, of course I came to hate the wind.’ Why is he leaving? In ‘Decent People’, where he listens to a taxi driver’s rant about Bulgaria’s problems, participates in anti-government protest and observes a small Pride parade, the narrator explains that ‘I’m not going home, I said, what would that even mean, I’m going back to America but I’m not going home. And maybe I won’t stay, I said, I don’t know, I like living abroad.’ This ‘don’t know’ is operative. (It’s followed by: ‘And then I threw up my hands, I don’t know anything, I said, don’t listen to anything I say.’) It’s hardly that Greenwell’s narrator renounces the transient mode of settlement he finds in being abroad, nor that he suddenly discovers a love of his home country. Rather home, that mobile phenomenon, begins to seem ill-fitting in Bulgaria.
            The narrator does not grant the Bulgarian characters in Cleanness the same interiority as in What Belongs to You, and observations of homophobic and bigoted attitudes come to the fore. (I am grateful to my friend Mirela Ivanova, with whom I’ve discussed this aspect of Greenwell’s book at length.) At the end of ‘Mentor’, he hopes that G., who has just privately come out to him as gay, and with some distress, ‘go to university and discover a new life in England or America, new freedoms and possibilities, a greater scope for love’. His use of English in a hook-up that turns threatening comprises, Marta Figlerowicz argues, ‘a wall of cultural and linguistic otherness’ that ‘separates Greenwell’s narrator from his Slavic lovers’ and ‘control[s] the terms of his submission to them.’ In Cleanness, Bulgaria becomes, at last, the narrator’s home away from home, a homophobic double where hostility and cultural difference are the structuring principles of domicile adrift. What this means for the collection’s narrative, particularly in the middle section, which depicts the narrator’s relationship with a Portugese man named R. and first seen in What Belongs to You, is that there must be another vacation, a further vacation, to a new and more accepting elsewhere.

Nicolas Bro in the Copenhagen theater Folketeatret’s production of the play Døden i Venedig - Drengen i Venedig based on the novel Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. (Courtesy Thomas Petri).

            When, in ‘The Frog King’, the narrator and R. go to Italy for a short winter holiday, the ‘clean geometry’ of the fields seen on a train journey from Bologna to Venice are opposed to the ‘shaggy, inexactly drawn’ fields seen in Sofia’s surrounding area, and in the past memory of ‘my family’s fields in Kentucky’, as if Bulgaria and America have begun to wear the same countenance, politically and agriculturally. Indeed, it is not Italy’s political present but its cultural past that appears to confer liberation from prejudice. ‘I wanted to be with him in a place where we could be freer with each other’, the narrator states, ‘a place in the West.’ To measure a place by the freedom to hold hands is certainly something I can relate to — it factors into any conversation I’ve had with my partner about where we might choose to go on holiday. But the vectors of such a choice are ambiguous. Inasmuch as you can do your research about the relative safety of destinations, such assessments often also turn upon cultural assumptions, arbitrary and ready-made ones, as when Greenwell’s narrator fails in Cleanness to understand why R. has not come out, given that he’s from Portugal, which ‘was a modern country, it wasn’t like Bulgaria.’ He’d seen images on the internet of the town ‘in the Azores’ where R. grew up, and it ‘seemed beautiful in the photos.’
            Literature and high culture might seem less ersatz alibis for such assumptions, and in the gay American abroad narrative, the possibility of happiness often hinges upon the question of a gay classicism. Whether such a thing can be found or forged or recovered from centuries-old structures, both aesthetic and architectural, is a source of tension in Cleanness and in Durbin’s Skyland, two of the genre’s most recent examples, which also serve to unpick its thornier political implications. When Greenwell’s narrator goes to Venice with R. in ‘The Frog King’ and visits St. Mark’s Square, he ‘wondered to look at it, the centuries-old basilica, the bells, the golden lion on its pedestal’ as well as ‘the books I had read, so that, look, there, I could almost convince myself of it, Aschenbach stepping from uncertain water to stone.’ This apparition of the narrator of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice — with whom Greenwell’s narrator has quite a bit in common, in fact, if we remember, as Figelorowicz notes, that the pornographic trope of the ‘Slavic boy’ descends from young Tadzio, the figure of Aschenbach’s obsession — serves to place Greenwell’s love story in a Western cultural continuum, as if this offered a salve to national and sexual alienation. As if what D.A. Miller has recently described as the ‘primly Platonized eroticism of Mann’s story’ could, in this stolen moment on holiday, augment or validate the narrator’s own internal life.
            This narrator — importantly distinguished from Greenwell himself — displays little of the same cultural literacy when it comes to Bulgaria’s queer history, and thus little capacity to find himself or his desires validated by its national culture, except perhaps in the story ‘A Valediction’, where he and R.  visit the medieval town of Veliko Turnovo in the hills. Although the same assumptions about Bulgaria’s cultural and political impoverishment are on display — ‘The way things are now, it’s hard to imagine the country that could make this’, says R. upon seeing the medieval fortress — the town’s cultural richness appears to allow the couple a moment of unusual intimacy. During an opera they go to see the same evening, the narrator loosens his instinctive caution to engage the couple’s ‘repertoire of covert gestures, the brushed elbow or knee, the slight pressure of a foot’, as he absorbs ‘how ancient the place was.’ When they watch the extraordinary light show that follows the opera, the narrator finds himself ‘suddenly […] inside it, the wonder of the place’, while his lover ‘pressed warm’ against him in the dark. This moment of rare and simple intimacy makes clear that the act of writing oneself into what might otherwise seem a hostile culture is a form of intervention, however small or ‘covert’ this ‘repertoire of gestures.’ In ‘Harbor’, the story that follows, which sees the narrator visit the ancient seaside town of Sozopol for a writers’ workshop, he remembers being told ‘that in summer very late at night you could find men here’, by the old Roman wall along the beach, one of the last remaining traces that the ‘city had been a major port once, the Romans had dedicated it to Apollo.’
            There are in fact a number of resemblances between ‘Harbor’ and Durbin’s Skyland; both of them feature narrators whose trips are punctuated by text messages from long-distance lovers; both of them are set in Greek-adjacent places (Sozopol’s ‘name is Greek’, it is explained to Greenwell’s narrator), and in both texts, gay cruising and eroticism are invoked as quiet modes of resistance against the moralism that so often attends spaces of antiquity. On Patmos, Durbin’s narrator and Shiv are instructed by a taxi driver that public nudity is forbidden in view of the citadel in Chora, the island’s ancient hillside town, even on the beaches, where Chora is always visible. This interdiction doesn’t stop Shiv from having public sex with a Frenchman he meets on the beach, albeit in the covert setting of a nearby farm, but it does make the narrator wonder why they ‘had thoughtlessly conceded to the ambiguous authority’ of the place, one that helps to assure that ‘a certain way of life would always be preserved — one without many gay men, fewer young people than we had expected, and no people of colour except Shiv.’ ‘Being naked, and not furtively fucking’, he continues, ‘is only a tiny revolt, the smallest of any supposedly radical gesture’, but it’s evident that this erotic tableau of boys on the beach continues to hold some radical potential for him. Although he does not find the painting of Hervé Guibert he is looking for, he finds instead another Tsarouchis painting of two beautiful boys sat on a rock, one that ‘allowed us a glimpse of the past we would never access, one that preceded us and could never be undone’, but which also bring to light an imagined menagerie of gay men — a cruising coterie, summoned in solidarity.

Giovanni’s Room Historical Marker at NE Corner S 12th & Pine Sts Philadelphia PA, 2019. (Courtesy Nick Philly).

            Among this transhistorical and transnational assemblage are the subjects of the painting; Guibert, himself; Andrew and Shiv, and the men they have seen on the beach, including the ‘pretty’ British boys whose native English sounded ‘as an unwelcome phone call from home, a reminder that soon we would have to get going, board the boat, and cruise back to the mainland.’ More ambiguous, however, is the extent to which the reader of Skyland can or should believe so easily in this utopian scene, of a gay male history recuperated from closed-minded classicism. For one, I kept thinking back to what Durbin’s narrator in MacArthur Park chants to himself upon looking at Cadmus’s painting: ‘a utopia of men is no utopia.’ But more than this, Durbin’s beautifully elliptical ending makes clear that even this gay male utopian vision, exclusive as it is, is itself hard-won and politically vexed. When the two men travelled to the nearby island of Lipsi a few days earlier, the narrator ‘immediately recognized’ the island’s ‘underlying conservatism’ in the ‘faces on the ferry, with their mistrusting eyes’, and which ‘were melded with the centuries as one transhistorical face’, Homeric and ‘haggard’, the visage of Greek antiquity. When they alight at Lipsi a little later, the exact antagonism of these expressions becomes clear. Shiv is taken aside by soldiers who were waiting for him at the dock, and is asked to show his identification. ‘They thought you were sneaking me into Europe’, he explains afterwards.
            Beyond ‘Lipsi’, Andrew explains towards the beginning the book, ‘lay the west coast of Turkey, where refugees lingered by seaside.’ The migrant crisis is present in Skyland only peripherally until Shiv’s exchange with the soldiers, which makes horribly clear that, despite the easternmost locations of Lipsi and Patmos, they are still very much outposts of the West. In fact, it is their liminal status that makes racial tensions all the clearer. In this regard, Durbin’s book reminded me of Luca Guadagnino’s 2016 film A Bigger Splash — its own painterliness gestured to by the ekphrastic, Hockney-inspired title — where the vacation of a group of hedonistic artists on an Italian island is disrupted, briefly but abruptly, by the appearance of North African migrants. This strategy, of placing at the edge of the picture a kind of nomadism that is anything but luxurious, risks flippancy but can also be a powerful way of throwing what appears to be the given narrative into relief. Durbin’s Skyland does not recover from this moment of rupture, and its gay pilgrimage plot is placed under a new focus on the remaining day of Andrew and Shiv’s vacation. What it does is demonstrate that the impulse to seek out experiences abroad, to make classical Europe one’s own demimonde, is not a right equally extended to everyone. (And here I’m talking about something beyond the politics of Timothée Chalamet fondling sculptures and riding a bike in the Italian hills, as in another of Guadagnino’s films.)
            As Baldwin notes in another of his fifties essays about France, the ‘American Negro in Paris is very nearly the invisible man,’ separated from both white compatriots and black Africans, but also hyper-visible in the Old-World glare of the European city. His Giovanni’s Room is, save for a short story from the sixties, Baldwin’s only work of fiction to feature no black characters. While it is easy to make too much of this, to draw deterministic conclusions, it feels consistent with the history of this genre that the particular sexual and psychological meanderings of David’s sojourn to Paris illustrate, to some extent, a white gay male condition wherein freedom is not encumbered, off the bat, by the reality of racial inequities. In Darryl Pinckney’s 2016 novel Black Deutschland, the narrator Jed, a black gay man, trades Reagan-era Chicago for Berlin. ‘Berlin meant boys, Isherwood said’, reads one of Pinckney’s remarkable opening sentences. ‘Fifty years after his adventures among proletarian toughs, Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.’ Jed discovers in flight the weight of his own traumas, but also those of the country he has fled to, where history provides few easy spaces for frivolity.
            The history of the ‘gay American abroad’ novel, which is much larger than what I’ve encompassed in my brief sketch here, thus offers, at last, a cautionary tale about nostalgia. The vacationer finds momentum in what is relative, in the capacity to see things from different angles in different time zones, but falsifications easily abound. It seems to me that in all of these texts there is a sort of homesickness for America, often a complicated and hidden-away one, but also a nostalgia for a time when a future trip, or a sought-after landscape, seemed simpler, and somehow more germane to one’s private fantasies about gay life. America possesses the time of these narratives like a Proustian object that will, inevitably, be found again, though greeted with the same ambivalence that attends any such founding relation. Considerations of clemency, political and otherwise, are of course valid and above all realistic — it goes without saying that queer people must often plan ahead to ensure their safety in public spaces, and even then cannot be guaranteed it. But what these novels reveal is that literary attempts to narrativize or fictionalise such journeys, albeit from a predominantly white gay male American vantage, place the narrating subject in a strange geopolitical bind, suspended between the risks of romance and ignorance. Tolerance and homophobia function differently in different places, but actual queer utopias are no more likely to exist among European basilicas or on remote Mediterranean shores than they are anywhere else, because they do not exist, or cannot simply be accessed by wealth or time or plane tickets alone. To get away from it all, to trial another way of living — these things are not only forms of leisure, but work; self-directed and outward, the work of healing; private and individual, collective and inclusive. I would say they are a journey, not a destination, but these novels have taught me not to trust stock phrases, even, or especially, on holiday.