Matthew Griffin
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Buy *Hide* by Matthew Griffinonline

Matthew Griffin
Bloomsbury USA
272 pages
February 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Although a late scene involving cruelty to an animal made Griffin’s novel difficult to finish for me, Hide is a potent, persuasive, and hypnotic reading experience. From the very first pages, Griffin’s lyrical novel of the love between World War II vet Frank Clifton and taxidermist Wendell Wilson is disturbing and haunting. Here in post-WWII Louisiana, this silently romantic duo seek to conceal their affections and deny their love affair to the wider world.

Amid the first green buds of tentative spring, Wendell is only 23 years old when he sees Frank standing on the train tracks that run down the middle of the street. The tallest fellow he’s ever seen, for Wendell it’s like “beholding Zeus in his full blazing divinity.” Frank has just returned from fighting. His mother insists that he start college to make good use of the GI bill. A lover of detective stories and pulp novels, with so many tattoos tangled together (“all drawn in thick woodcut lines”), Wendell is at once enamored and flattered at this handsome, burly man who comes to him for companionship on the long and lonely nights: “There was a sort of desperate brightness in his eyes and a restlessness--something of the wild starving dog.”

Building his story between the couple’s initial courtship and their first flowering efforts at passion, Griffin makes us a captive audience as these near-perfect strangers whisper to each other in secretive and nostalgic tones, though poisoned and restricted by the time in which they live. Wendell tells us that he has felt the passage of time with something like an acute pain. What starts out as a tentative courtship becomes sixty years of domestic life so blurry and diffuse and fragile “that any stone thrown might shatter it.”

The opening scenes test Frank and Wendell’s relationship. In a medical emergency, Frank’s cardiomyopathy will reshape their future and lead Wendell to take control of their lives together as Frank begins to mentally and physically deteriorate. The 83-year-old Frank makes it difficult for everyone to help him, and Wendell is left to pick up the pieces when he discovers Frank lying flat on his back in the middle of the vegetable garden. Although Frank explains that he feels fine and that he’s just worn out from the sun--that he’s just had “a turn”--clearly he’s beginning to have serious health issues.

As Griffin moves between the present and the past, we learn much about Frank and Wendell’s long-held efforts to cover up their relationship. We catch glimpses of a deeply frightened Frank, who tries not to think about his parents. In a low, hoarse voice perhaps scraped raw by desperation and supplication, Frank tells of having to hide his sexuality so that nobody could establish a pattern, how his mama would always try to get him to court some girl he’d just met. It is a telling pattern, one begun in the early days. Wendell points out that they never wrote each other love letters and they never went anywhere together: “Not the store or out to eat or on vacation.” Working at the local denim mill in a job well below his skill level, Frank keeps to himself, reading his pulp novels. He has always prided himself that no one has the slightest inkling. Meanwhile, hovering over them both are those truly unspeakable men who are being “arrested for crimes against nature.”

Unfolding his novel in a first-person narrative voice, Griffin describes the inner lives of both Wendell and Frank in dialogue that articulates their deepest emotions. This makes the passages in the book seem almost hyper-real. We feel Wendell’s melancholy that his love for Frank could never be “unfettered” and open to the world. This is perhaps the most stunning feature of this emotional novel: that when both Frank and Wendell are gone, nobody will remember any of it: “Nobody will see our photos and marvel that we too were young once.”

One wonders at Frank’s constant paranoia in breaking free of his hidden bonds. Even in this age of marriage equality, we see Frank declining into an anguish as wide and as sparse as the physical desolation he endured in the war. Wendell’s emotional decision to never tell the truth (“the story to anyone who asks is that we were very dear friends”) saddens our hearts for both men, given the time and circumstances in which they live.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2016

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