“An Evening Out”
by Garth Greenwell
from the August 21, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

While I’ve never read any of Garth Greenwell’s work, I’ve certainly been hearing a lot of positive praise for his 2016 debut novel, What Belongs to You, about an American teacher in Bulgaria. I just read the opening lines and enjoyed them a great deal:

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.

In his interview with The New Yorker (here), Greenwell calls the story collection he’s working on right now, which will contain “An Evening Out,” “very much a companion to the novel: all of the stories are set in Bulgaria, all of them feature the same narrator.” He would, he says, write a section of the novel and then write a story in the same general world.

For fans of What Belongs to You, then, this should be a must read. I’m definitely interested and am curious what I might miss having no familiarity with the novel.

I’m looking forward to the discussion below.

By | 2017-09-11T13:34:47+00:00 August 14th, 2017|Categories: Garth Greenwell|Tags: |19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. David August 14, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    I had never heard of Greenwell before reading this story. Here are a few main thoughts about it:
    .
    [1] There is a nice flow to his writing that makes the story and easy breezy read. At a little over 8000 words, it is one of the longer stories that The New Yorker publishes, but it never seemed to drag and felt like a shorter read. It is interesting to find out he started his writing life as a poet, because there is nothing in the prose here that suggests that. He has a rather simple style, and I mean that as a good thing.
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    [2] Setting it in Bulgaria is pointless. Yes, I know he lived there and it seems all his stories are about the same character who works in Bulgaria, so maybe in the other stories that figures in a way that is significant, but here it is a non-factor. I bet he could re-write the story in five minutes to put the story in Kentucky, Michigan, or Missouri. Other than the odd Bulgarian words thrown in and the bits about how Bulgarians nod yes and no differently, there is nothing that makes the setting even noticeable.
    .
    [3] I don’t know why Greenwell thought this story was worth telling. The events are not particularly unique or eventful. The characters do not undergo any transformations or experience any epiphanies, nor are the unique and compelling as personalities in their own right. There is nothing wrong with any of it, just nothing special. A guy who has been working as a teacher had dinner with a group of recent former students, then goes to a bar with two of them, they get very drunk, he gets turned on by one of them and makes a couple of semi-unintentional and awkward sexual advances that the guy barely seems to notice, if at all, is invited back to their place, declines, goes home, and curls up with a dog. The end. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing special either.
    .
    [4] The dog. In the interview he says the dog was not there originally, but he knew he needed a better ending so the dog showed up. I like the dog and agree she was needed. While he’s busy being a drunk mess and judging himself, the dog just wants a belly rub and a cuddle. Good ol’ simple dog.
    .
    [5] Ok, ok, so near the end we get the stuff about how he wonders about whether how he acted was a betrayal of his vocation, how it might have been a bad idea to let his former students see a bit more of who he really is, about how teaching is a performance and his identity as a teacher a character he has inhabited, not who he really is. But that all happens fast in just one paragraph. And it’s not really a very original idea or presented in a particularly novel way. So it’s less than it could have been.
    .
    In some ways I feel a bit like I did when reading “The Itch” a couple of weeks ago, except this one has a bit more interesting writing. I don’t feel like I wasted my time reading this nor would I mind at all if The New Yorker publishes him again, but I don’t feel moved to read his other published work. If someone else who has read his other work comes along and says they agree with me generally about this story, but his novel is much better then I would take that as a good reason to try it. But short of that, I’ll probably pass.

  2. Debashish August 16, 2017 at 3:44 am

    If that quicksilver nature of consciousness is all that the writer wanted to showcase, well – it’s a very long story for that. Fortunately, as David points out, the flow was good and it wasn’t a problem to read the story till the end.

  3. Sean H August 16, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Anybody else tired of naming characters with a letter instead of a freakin’ name? OK then, let’s move on.

    I also got the feeling very early on that this was more like journaling than literature. Not a promising feeling. Yes, there are people who turn personal incidents into fiction or literary nonfiction with aplomb (Henry Miller and Anais Nin leap to mind), but again, there’s a been-there-done-that vibe to contend with if that’s the tack an author takes.

    Brian Blanchfield’s book Proxies gives a good primer on how to transmute personal experience into thought-provoking literature (and from a similarly gay male POV). He’s way ahead of Greenwell as a writer. Sorry Garth, but dude is just way smarter and way more inventive than you. And more honest.

    The insertion of foreign words is a blatant grab at authenticity too. Shameless and lacking. It’s shorthand. Do the hard work, Garth, do the hard work of conjuring.

    I don’t want to devolve into a gazillion examples but I do want to specify my complaint. “There wasn’t a dance floor, though what else could be the point of the place, with the music so loud it was impossible to talk, after only a minute of it my ears ached.” Read that sentence. Is there anything good at all in there? Does it do anything? Is it necessary? No, it belongs on a teenager’s Instagram page next to a picture of glasses sitting on a bar.

    The sentence after that, a depiction of a “young woman” in a “blouse several sizes too small” is at the least lazy, and at worst misogynistic. It’s fine for the character to be a misogynist, but if the author is one because he can’t think of women in three-dimensional terms, that’s much more problematic.

    At this point I was ready to label the story just plain bad writing: “The music changed as we set our glasses down, there was a sudden assault of gaidi, the mountain bagpipes ubiquitous in folk music, and then a syncopated rush of drums that made both our faces break open in smiles.” Faces breaking open in smiles – really? And that’s saying a lot, for me to call something just straight up “bad.”. The New Yorker, for all its flaws, rarely publishes truly sub par writing, where the talent of the author in question is in doubt and it’s full on quackery land (although they do publish Curtis Sittenfeld, and she writes like a spoiled 8th grader).

    Then the narrator says “Da” a few times and there are “handsome cocks” (LOL, like seriously I just laughed and laughed, heartily, thoroughly, at how bad it was) and I go get an orange juice and consider spiking it with vodka even though it’s the middle of the day because this story has officially depressed me.

    “Only then did I look at his face. Our eyes met…” More copious laughter on my end, even without any vodka.

    All teaching might be pretending, and so might all writing, but you need to pretend better than this, Greenwell, a lot better.

    A dog (wow, even when you invent you go for the most sentimental, cheesy, simplistic choice possible), more grasps at credibility via foreign words and phrases, and mercifully this overlong piece of dreck ends. My god, man, this was egregious bad, horrible bad, slovenly and sophomorically bad. SMH, as the kids say.

  4. David August 17, 2017 at 11:59 am

    Time for another rant. I know, I know. No need to thank me :-)
    .
    Sean comments that the use of the phrase “their eyes met” induced laughter from him. This is not the first time I have seen someone comment about this phrase on this blog. But I didn’t even take note of the phrase as I read the story. And now that it is pointed out to me, I can’t for the life of me see why it is such a literary crime that it’s hilarious. It strikes me as a pretty ordinary phrase and perhaps the simplest way of saying that two people were each looking at each other’s eyes at the same time. Is there some reason that a longer, more complicated way of expressing this happening is to be preferred? Or are we supposed to think that talking about two people looking each other in the eye at the same time is absurd? I really don’t know. So I decided to investigate.
    .
    I popped the phrase “their eyes met” into Google along with the names of various famous authors to see if I got any hits. Charles Dickens? Yes, he used it in Oliver Twist. F. Scott Fitzgerald? Yup, he used it in The Great Gatsby. Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner? Yes, yes, and yes. Two weeks ago Sean referred to Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Thomas Pynchon as the top five living American authors. So far as I could find, all but DeLillo has used the phrase. Roth used it in at least two different books and Pynchon in three. Should we revise our view of all these authors and now think of them as laughably bad? Surely not. So what’s the deal?
    .
    I then typed in “their eyes met” along with “bad writing” into Google to see if I could find a clue. I found a link to it being used as a writing prompt phrase for romance novels that called it a cliché. A little more Googling and I found that it seems that romance novelists like using the phrase especially when they want to suggest a particularly dramatic moment has arrived. So one familiar with the writing of romance novels might think that any use of the phrase is now poisoned because of this. But the fact remains, it is a pretty ordinary phrase that people use all the time as a simple description, not a dramatic announcement. That so many of the greatest writer have used and continue to use it this way should be some indication it is not the sole property of romance novelists.
    .
    I suspect that some literary critics or teachers in writing factories at some point decided that they would make the phrase a pariah and so denounced it as unacceptable in decent literary company. It has, like adverbphobia, become another sort of shibboleth to identify who is “in the know” and who isn’t. But for me, as someone far more likely to see the phrase because I am reading Oliver Twist, The Great Gatsby, or one of the many excellent novels of Toni Morrison or Thomas Pynchon, rather than reading romance novels (which, so far, I have successfully avoided reading altogether), I don’t trip up when I see the phrase or assume that the author thinks he is making a dramatic point. I see it as just a simple and straightforward way to indicate that two people are looking at each other’s eyes at the same time. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

  5. David August 17, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    Update: It only occurred to me after posting my previous comment that there are ways of essentially using the phrase “their eyes met” without the word “their”. So I popped the phrase “eyes met” into Google along with DeLillo’s name to see if I could raise that score from 4/5 to 5/5. I found that in DeLillo’s novel The Names he wrote the sentence, “Kathryn’s eyes met mine.” Mission accomplished :-)

  6. Paul August 17, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    I have this thing where I need to understand completely what has been said in order to read and enjoy a story. I can’t get past the opening paragraph which doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. “Z had emptied half the carton of juice”. What? He just poured away half of the carton without drinking it. “He refused to dump it in the gutter” — that doesn’t make sense either.

  7. David August 17, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    Paul, the answer is in the second sentence you skipped over: “We had laughed at the way he threw his head back and drank, sucking the juice down even as he grimaced at the taste, which was sickly sweet.” Z drank half a carton of juice in order to make the carton half empty.

  8. Diana August 18, 2017 at 7:18 pm

    I was pretty disppointed by this story. The story’s set up seemed to focus on N at first and the differing perspectives on his future – his own, his mother’s, the narrator his teacher’s. It piqued my interest as I began to imagine that the story was going in the direction of whether the teacher, from America the land of infinite possibility, would prove to be a positive or a devastating influence on his talented Bulgarian student dealing with far more limited possibilities. But my interest waned pretty quickly when the story diffused and declined into a tedious and rather cliched depiction of a drunken disco night (eastern european versión) as the setting for some rather superficial introspection on the part of the expat American teacher. So I skipped to the last page where there was a scene of some small comfort at the end of the uneventful evening from man’s best friend. Really nothing much going on here. This story made Itch look profound (Not!)

  9. Sean H August 18, 2017 at 10:44 pm

    You make some interesting points, David, but the examples you give from great writers are from many years ago. Things become cliche over time. Maybe they weren’t seen as cliches a hundred years ago or even thirty-five years ago (when DeLillo published The Names), but they certainly are now. Also, you can use cliches if you are subverting them and if the prose around the cliches makes it clear that the writer is aware of what they are.
    And, honestly, I’m taking a pretty traditional and uncontroversial artful-fiction-is-original-fiction stance. I’m throwing my lot in more with George Orwell than with some MFA fiction-factory mindset. Remember the rules from “Politics and the English Language”:
    **1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. [Eyes meeting are something we’re all pretty damn used to seeing in print, I think you’d have to admit.]
    2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
    So yeah, I think people can get too persnickety in rooting out problematic aspects of a single sentence, phrase, or word, but Greenwell’s piece was littered with unoriginal and bland writing, not just that single guffaw-inspiring example.

  10. David August 19, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Sean, I was introduced to Orwell’s essay during my first year on University and I loved it. It’s brilliant and I have recommended it to others countless times. So I certainly take his advice very seriously. Unfortunately, you seem to have misunderstood his essay in a few fairly basic ways. Firstly, as the title clearly indicates, in this essay Orwell is talking specifically about the way people speak and write when talking about politics. You might notice that all of the examples he uses during the essay come from non-fiction writing. For those who missed that he was talking about political writing he reminds us a few times. He begins paragraphs with sentences like, “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing” and “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Then, just before the end, he explicitly notes (again, at the start of a paragraph) “I have not here been considering the literary use of language”. This makes sense, since being plain-spoken is much more obviously a virtue when the goal is (or should be) the clear communication of political ideas than when it is artistic expression. In short, his essay does not apply.
    .
    But even if we assume it does apply to literary contexts and has something to teach us there, you still have missed something important. When it comes to the critique of metaphors, he puts them into three categories: (1) “newly invented” ones, (2) “dead” ones, and (3) “dying” ones. He (and you and I) endorses the use of new and original metaphors. But he also approves the use of “dead” ones. He says they have “in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness”. His example is “iron resolution” but we might think of others easily, like “catch a cold” or the use of words like mental “stress” or dramatic “tension”. The language has a great many dead metaphors the we use routinely without even thinking of them as being metaphors at all anymore. The difference between a dying and a dead metaphor is always going to be a matter of debate. Orwell uses “hotbed” as an example of a dying one to be avoided, but I would contend that some time in the seventy years since Orwell wrote his essay, that one died and now can be used in ordinary communication.
    .
    It is also worth noting the reason that Orwell objected to dying metaphors. His objection was nothing to do with whether they were original or not, but about whether they help express ideas more clearly than alternative phrasing might or they obscure meaning. He says, “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” Fair enough, but it invites the question whether, in a given case, the metaphor causes vagueness or not. Is there any ambiguity about what “eyes met” means? Surely not. In fact, as I mentioned before, I can’t think of a simpler way of communicating the idea it expresses. That it is done using two, short, single-syllable words is something Orwell would approve of as well. If there is a clearer or better way of expressing the idea, I’d like to hear what that is. The (dead) metaphor of eyes meeting does not suffer the problem of vagueness Orwell worried about. So even if he were writing about the literary use of language (he isn’t) this metaphor is not something he would have a problem with. It’s dead, it’s simple, and it communicates clearly. All are reasons Orwell gives to approve using an expression.
    .
    You also mentioned that the examples I gave of authors using the phrase “eyes met” are all from a long time ago. There was a reason for that. When choosing examples I wanted to avoid saying “Author X used it” and getting the reply, “Yeah, but I don’t think author X is a very good writer.” So I started with authors for whom that would not arise as a criticism. Dickens, Fitzgerald, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner seemed like a good list of names to fit that bill. (Full disclosure: I also tried Hemingway and found no instance of him using the phrase. I also tried James Joyce and found he used it in Dubliners but forgot to include him.) When I saw these were all long dead authors, I thought that it should help make the point that the phrase has been around forever and widely used by the best writers, so not something that should strike us as unusual or problematic. But to try to include some more recent authors (and living ones), I recalled your list of your picks for the five best living American authors. That I could find examples of all five of them using the phrase (and some using it multiple times) seemed to show that this is not just a phrase used by great authors of the distant past, but one used by more recent ones as well. But if they are not recent enough examples, we can search a little more. Here are some I tried out:
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    – George Saunders used the phrase in his 2017 book Lincoln in the Bardo.
    – Colson Whitehead used the phrase twice in his book The Underground Railroad, a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and is longlisted for the Booker Prize.
    – Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, used it.
    .
    How about other contemporary authors? What about the three Jonathans?
    .
    – Jonathan Safran Foer used it three times in his 2016 novel, Here I Am.
    – Jonathan Lethem used it in at least four different novels, most recently in his 2016 book, A Gambler’s Anatomy.
    – Jonathan Franzen used it in three of his five novels, including his most recent one, Purity from 2015.
    .
    How about authors of special interest on this blog?
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    – Alice Munro used the phrase in her short story “Train”, published in 2012.
    .
    Shall I go on? No? Ok. So it looks like we have two options: We can decide that pretty much every great writer in English over the last 150 years, including the most successful literary writers of today, all write passages that should induce gales of laughter (is that metaphor dead enough that I can use it?) for how bad their writing is or we can recognize that “eyes met” is a dead metaphor that died a long, long time ago and is commonly used because it is a very clear and simple way of communicating an idea. The latter option actually goes further than saying we should not criticize writers for talking about eyes meeting, but perhaps even might praise them for the simplicity and directness of their expression. How is that for a plot twist!
    .
    I really do think that the romance novelists way of using phrasing like “their eyes met across a crowded room” or some such similar garbage to suggest a particularly dramatic moment is the real reason that some have decided that “their eyes met” should be consigned to the dust heap of history. My advice would be to stop reading romance novels and thinking about how romance novelists try to murder the language. We can’t let the literary terrorists win!
    .
    PS – If you want to maintain the claim that the metaphor was not dead or dying in the distant past when non-dead authors like Dickens, Fitzgerald, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner (and Joyce) were using it, but its ubiquity now means it is dead now in the 21st century, that would mean that somewhere in between then and now it was a dying metaphor that Orwell might recommend avoiding. That in between time would seem to possible fall about 35 years ago, around the time that DeLillo, McCarthy, Morrison, Roth, and Pynchon were using it. I think the metaphor died a very very long time ago, so I give all of them a pass. But your mileage might vary.

  11. David August 19, 2017 at 9:59 am

    God I hate typos that spell actual words. They are so easy to miss. I see a couple above, but the most idiotic looking one is “non-dead” when I mean to type “now-dead”. Ugh.

  12. Ken August 19, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    Whenever I’m really enjoying a story, as I did this, I often stop at the pauses in it and think ‘Wonder what the wrecking crew at the Mookse is gonna say.” I’m not making this comment in anger, I actually appreciate the hard-nosed and tough comments of David or Sean H. Often they’ll make valid points about the story that lessens my opinion of it. This is good, but if it doesn’t exactly make me angry, I do feel sometimes there’s a bit of “putdown machismo” at times emanating from this site. A (quiet?) glee in trashing something (Sittenfield for instance). That said–I was probably over impressed by the amazing flow and suspense here to realize, as had David and Sean, the undeniably unoriginal aspects of the piece. It didn’t change the experience which I had had but casts a somewhat retrospective pall over this. I’m always thinking of a phrase of Christian Metz, the psychoanalytic film theorist, who describe analyzing films as being like breaking open a children’s toy to see how it works–the magic is dispelled. Yet…I could NEVER imagine a life in which I don’t break open that toy myself. In fact, I teach film history/theory at a junior college.

  13. Sean H August 19, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    I’m just glad that a site like this exists where intelligent debate can take place about whether or not stock phrases have merit in the contemporary lit world, or whether or not adverbs are lazy and overused on the whole. These are quite specific and detailed points that are made here and go far beyond “I liked it” or “It sucked.”

  14. Jan Guerin August 20, 2017 at 11:04 pm

    Returning to the reader response level, I actually loved the story. The tone of the evening was so erratic as he swings from feeling so intensely happy, that he’s actually aware of how relaxed and convivial he feels among his students, to then swinging to feeling deep shame and despair. When the evening begins with an unannounced photo being taken, it seemed to suggest it was going to present a problem in the future. That however, didn’t happen and the events which occurred over the evening are such that will probably never be viewed or confronted . They will certainly nag at the memories of the narrator and “Z” for a very long time though. I also thought the setting of Bulgaria was necessary to the theme, as the student- teacher relationship in foreign countries is usually more authoritative and detached. could this evening truly occur in Bulgaria? With an American teacher? American teachers are often more alert to potential misunderstandings and wary of relaxing with students; particularly if it involves alcohol. That the students have already graduated, is inconsequential. Americans carry that fear and I would speculate that a gay teachers sense of boundaries would be even more keen. I thought the ending was moving and honest and sad.

  15. Paul August 26, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    At the beginning, it seems that the mixing drinks and drinking is taking place inside. Then suddenly, after a full column of description, we discover that the scene is not being set inside but “in the city center, standing beneath a street lamp.” Is there a reason for not saying at the beginning that they were in the street? It’s irritating to realise that the earlier mental picture I had was inaccurate, and that I didn’t understand the scene previously. Of course, readers can learn from their misunderstandings, but I don’t see what the author gains by bypassing basic narrative techniques in scene-setting.

  16. David August 27, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Paul, I don’t see why you think there is an indication that they are inside. The third sentence mentions the gutter, so by then it should be clear they are outside, and I don’t see anything in the first two sentences that indicate location at all. But even if you missed the mention of the gutter, there is nothing in the entire first paragraph to indicate that they are inside rather than outside. I think you just missed made an assumption and you can’t fault the author for that.
    .
    But speaking of assumptions, the story does not actually tell us that the narrator is male rather than female until the fourth paragraph. I had assumed from the start that he was male, but that was based on knowing that the author is male and, like his character, had been a teacher in Bulgaria. There actually isn’t anything to fix the sex of the character until we are told that the student referred to him the way one does to a male teacher in Bulgaria. That happens almost 1000 words into the story. I don’t think it’s particularly significant (unlike in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “The Prairie Wife”), but it is interesting to note.

  17. Greg August 27, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    A ‘Big Thank You’ to both David and Sean for your in-depth analysis of the writerly techniques used in this story. You knowledge sharing opens up hidden realms for us!

    Ken – I appreciate how you want to know the full truth about a piece, even though you derived pleasure from it. This sentence in your post tells me so much about you:

    “Yet…I could NEVER imagine a life in which I don’t break open that toy myself.”

  18. Greg August 27, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Jan – I share the passion and observations that you had for this story. Here is my favourite quote:

    “I felt myself swept by a wave of happiness or joy, my face stretched stupidly in a grin. I must look foolish, I thought somewhere, but there was so much pleasure in being a fool, why had I spent so much of my life guarding against it?”

  19. Paul August 27, 2017 at 6:33 pm

    David, I take your point and I appreciate your efforts to provide insightful commentary on this site. To me, drinking outdoors is somewhat unusual. I did catch the reference to the gutter, but I assumed that meant to go outdoors and tip the juice into the gutter. (But then yes, why wouldn’t a person use the sink instead of the gutter?)
    I think Garth Greenwell is a gay man who specialises in fiction which explores the point of view of gay male characters.
    I think it’s natural and ok to make assumptions about the characters, based on what we know about the authors. Yes, it will often happen that the P.O.V character has a different gender than the author. But even though this happens often, it’s probably less than 5% of the time.

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