The Great Library Rundown, Part 1: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Though I generally don’t use my local library as often as I feel I should, over the last few months I’ve read a steady stream of library books, which I’ll be opining on in batches. Chez O is about to see some very busy weeks, so longer review posts will appear sporadically, I’m afraid.

Let’s sally forth, shall we?

In March I checked out two books I’ve had my eye on for quite a while: Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You and Katie Roiphe’s study of writers meeting their deaths, The Violet Hour. Both were on hold, so I had to return them before I could do a proper write-up, but here’s a short glimpse of each.

IMG_6233What Belongs to You is narrated by an American teacher living in Bulgaria, who finds himself drawn to Mitko, a beguiling and needy hustler. In long sentences and paragraphs (sometimes pages long), Mr. Greenwell reveals the narrator’s troubled Southern childhood, his attempts to control his desire for risk, his confessional impulses. The prose is precise and rather cool, I would say, for a book so concerned with lust and longing, but the contrast between subject and style works to draw the reader into the kinds of worlds we might ordinarily look past, to overcome our resistance to deeply examining uncomfortable emotions like fear, shame, and pity. It’s a remarkable, timely, and difficult novel, well worth reading.

Here’s a passage I particularly liked, from later in the novel when the narrator and his mother have traveled by train in a compartment with another woman and a small boy:

Making poems is a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning. But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.


IMG_6239I’m fascinated with death—not in a Hot Topic skull necklace kind of way, I mean, but about its practical realties and existential murkiness—and so this book was right up my alley. Ms. Roiphe, herself the survivor of a near-fatal childhood illness, conducted research (including interviews with relatives, friends, and caregivers) on how writers approached their own looming ends. You’ll find chapters on Susan Sontag, Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and John Updike (and a conversation with James Salter at the end of the book); each is utterly different and completely absorbing.  As soon as I finished it, I put The Violet Hour on my (imaginary) wish list. Intellectual, unflinching, ferocious questioning. Here are a few lines I noted:

In even the worst deaths, observed closely, there is a great burst of life.


Time in the hospital is strange; it just hangs there, with no progression of the sun, no night, even, in all that fluorescence, in the nurses ducking in at three in the morning, in tests, and medications, and blood pressure takings.


[about James Salter] In some larger sense, of course, the thing I want from him is delusional. I want him to tell me what it means to come close to death. He flew fighter planes in Korea. He writes more radiant sentences than any writer alive. He seems from his fiction to see ends in beginnings, loss before the fact. From these unrelated details, I have somehow concocted a fantasy that he has made peace with death, seen it up close, knows its surface. I have a further implausible fantasy that he can or wants to share this knowledge with me and put it into words.

P.S. for Ripley: Happy birthday; no bildungsroman today!