By David Nilsen
Matthew Griffin’s debut novel Hide (Bloomsbury, 2016) is the story of a lifelong love that has carved out a shelter in the shadows of a cruel and intolerant world. Two men–Frank Clifton and Wendell Wilson–fall in love in mid-century North Carolina, not long after Frank returns from World War II. It is a time period in which men can be sent to prison for any hint of homosexual conduct, if they aren’t just killed outright by villagers with metaphorical pitchforks and torches. Frank and Wendell have no reason to believe this will change anytime soon, so if they are to be together, they must hide. They purchase a small house far from town, a house secluded from the road by trees (they plant more every year, just to be safe), and they never leave it together. In their nearly six decades together, they go out together only once. They cut family and friends out of their lives. They don’t get involved with the politics or social spheres of their town or jobs. They have weighed each other against everything else a normal life out in the world could provide, and they have found each other to be worth forfeiting it all.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, smiling wide and earnest, and I thought I’d be struck down by it, the way it struck down mortals to behold Zeus in his full, blazing divinity, reduced them to ash, the painful glory of him. The branches shuddered off their casts of ice, and the power lines broke free of their insulation, snapped taut and scattered it over the street in pieces that still cupped the hollow channel where the wire had run. Icicles plunged from gutters and shattered on the sidewalk, sheets of snow slid from roofs. The din of it, the creak and thump and shatter, sounded like the world coming undone. – page 21
One day while weeding his garden, Frank collapses. Wendell calls an ambulance, and they spend the next days in the hospital. Frank has had a stroke. They return home and Wendell sets about caring for his stubborn, frustrated, cranky partner who refuses to accept his body can no longer do the tasks to which it is accustomed. They are, for all intents and purposes, an Old Married Couple in the comedic sense, showing their affection for each other with prickly verbal jabs and unvarnished annoyance. Beneath this is a love that has sustained them for half a century. It is all they have had, and all they have now.
The novel’s modern day (which I think is actually the early 2000s, though the date is never given) is one in which Frank and Wendell could probably safely stop hiding their relationship. Hate crimes are definitely still committed against LGBTQ folks in this country, and North Carolina does seem committed to continually reaffirming its own regressive prejudices against that community, but even this world is no longer as hostile to queer relationships as Hide‘s couple remembers it once being. Habits die hard, though, especially when they are habits that have kept you alive. Secrecy has become a daily, conscious way of life for Frank and Wendell, and over time it has become something of an identity even. In a passage in which Wendell, who narrates the book, is talking about modern advances in gay rights, there is a tone of irritation. He’s a bit resentful he’s had to live what he has while these young folks dance around with their pride parades and rainbows, but he’s also just a little annoyed with them for doing it even aside from what he’s had to live. There is a sense of propriety at work, as though he can’t quite shake the notion that hiding is the right and proper way for a relationship like his to function. This is quiet and unexplored in the book, but it’s a fascinating theme none the less.
Frank’s health deteriorates. Wendell tries to hold on, both to normalcy and to the man who has loved him and whom he has loved his entire adult life, the one person he has chosen over the rest of the world and the opportunities they both might have had otherwise. Frank becomes less the man he has always loved and more the outward proxy of that man, a totem representing what that man once was. Hide is one of the best representations of lifelong love straining but holding fast in the face of mortality and its brutal advance guard–senility–I have ever read. What is love when its object is no longer the being who first earned and provoked it? If it is all that remains, is it enough? Hide explores these questions with breathtaking beauty and grace.
The title–Hide–holds interesting meanings. The first is obvious: it describes what Frank and Wendell have done their entire lives. But there is another meaning, and it springs from Wendell’s profession. He was the town’s taxidermist for years, and the imagery of his trade is used throughout the book as Wendell describes his interior and exterior worlds to us. His and Frank’s first recognition of mutual love came in his shop as he stripped a deer “some yokel had driven over with his car and dragged straight there behind it, as proud as if he’d killed it with his bare hands,” and Griffin somehow takes this morbid and bloody task and makes it vulnerable and delicate, weaving it into the subtle interplay of their joint longing and timidity as they feel each other out, making absolutely sure the other feels as they do. Wendell works with animal hides. He knows much about the careful internal constructions that lie beneath an elegant and essentially deceptive outer display. From here it’s not hard to see the title’s second meaning–these men have been wearing borrowed skins their entire lives as they play the role their society asks of them.
Hide is a beautiful and painful book, a testament to love and the lengths we will go to protect it once we find it.
Hide is available now at Greenville Public Library.