Matthew Griffin’s beautifully-written, tender, funny, sad and moving debut novel, Hide tells the story of the decades-long love story of two men – Wendell Wilson, a taxidermist, and Frank Clifton, a war veteran – who meet just after World War II in a small town in the Southern United States (the state is never named, but is probably Tennessee, where Griffin and his partner have campaigned – unsuccessfully – to be married).
The novel’s title, obviously, has a double-meaning. The two men have lived their life in secret for decades, having cut themselves off from family and friends, and set up house together on the outskirts of the town, away from prying eyes. Here the two fall into domestic bliss. Wendell cooks and cleans; Frank takes care of the garden. They never have visitors, and on the few occasions that someone stops by, Frank tells them that Wendell is a neighbour (or sometimes Frank’s brother).
The novel opens with 83-year-old Frank having a stroke in the garden of their home. Even as Wendell is checking Frank into hospital, he has to lie about their relationship. The rest of the novel charts Frank’s increasing physical and mental deterioration, alternating the contemporary narrative with chapters detailing the beginning of their love affair in the 1940s, and their life together in the following decades.
The critics have been falling over themselves praising Hide, and it’s easy to see why. The plot never sags; it’s masterfully structured; and the prose, for the most part, is superb. On occasion, Griffin walks a dangerous line between lyrical beauty and purple prose. Consider the moment the two men meet.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, smiling wide and earnest, and I thought I’d been 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 streets in pieces that still cupped the hollow channel where the wire had run. Icicles plunged from gutters and shattered on the sidewalk, sheets of slow slid from roofs. The din of it, the creak and thump and shatter, sounded like the world come undone.
Okay, if that is a tad excessive, consider the circumstance. This is the United States at a time when men like Wendell and Frank were losing their jobs, being thrown in prison, or being chemically castrated because of who they were. No wonder love at first sight for Wendell carries an extra spark.
Wendell is the book’s narrator, and we learn surprisingly little about him, as his focus (and the novel’s) is on Wendell, the tall, strapping handyman whose outward bravado hides a frightened little boy (he makes a point of being home every night in time for dinner with his mother, and intimacy with Wendell doesn’t come easily at first). It is implied that frank probably is suffering battle fatigue. Wendell didn’t go to war – he has no idea what a real machine gun sounds like, or what it is to kill; ironic, therefore, that it’s Wendell the taxidermist who puts wounded animals out of their misery – Frank can’t bear to harm an animal.
It’s the skin and the skin alone that makes any of us worthy of love and kindness. Underneath it we are monsters, every living thing.
Griffin’s real triumph with Hide is that he has written a remarkably intimate book with an extremely small cast of characters. Apart from a few walk-ons, this is pretty much a two-hander, and Hide is a celebration of domestic bliss and domestic misery, focusing on the daily routines, arguments, humour, bickering, chores, tedium and love and affection of a long-term marriage. A long-term relationship that has to be lived in secret.
After fifty years together, they don’t even have any photos of the two of them, because they are too fearful to ask someone to take their picture together, and on one of the very few occasions they venture out of the house together, they go to the supermarket (in separate cars and with their shopping list split into two). It’s a trip that ends badly when Frank panics and begs Wendell to get him out of there.
Frank and Wendell watch a lot of TV courtroom drama, and running through the book is the trial of a woman – nicknamed Debbie Drowner by the tabloids – for drowning her baby. Wendell ruminates on the brief moment of quiet she must have enjoyed after killing her baby, before the realization of what she did set in – there is a lot of death in Hide: it looms over the novel.
Not that there isn’t humour. Hide is at times a laugh-out loud funny book, as Wendell and Frank bicker over chores and Frank’s increasing stubbornness. As he slips farther into senility, he develops a sweet tooth, but is remarkably choosy – Wendell bakes every sort of cake imaginable, but the only thing Frank will eat is store-bought Christmas fruitcake, and then he takes to hiding the wrappers around the house.
Along with the comedy, of course, is the wearying stress of caring for an invalid: bed sores, incontinence, and so on, and the ever-present sense of the inevitable facing the two men, with Wendell realising he will outlive Frank, and that after that, because nobody knows he lives in the house, he will no doubt die alone, his body possibly undiscovered for days.
However, Hide is still a life-affirming novel, one that proclaims the power of enduring love and affection, even as it doesn’t forget to count the cost.
“I wanted really badly to be a part of the world … I wasn’t always as good to you as I could have been, but I was just so scared. All the time.”
“That they’d take you away from me.”
Verdict: Four Stuffed Animals out of Five