No nation I’ve ever heard of

Garth Greenwell

  • Hide by Matthew Griffin
    Bloomsbury, 272 pp, £16.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 4088 6708 2

At the beginning of Matthew Griffin’s novel, Wendell, his eighty-something narrator, finds his partner collapsed in their garden, face up in the North Carolina sun. Frank will recover from the immediate effects of his stroke, but the book charts his decline into physical debility and dementia, as well as Wendell’s increasingly desperate efforts to care for him. Care doesn’t always look the way one might expect, however. Late in the novel, as Frank becomes more and more confused, he refuses to wear his dentures, complaining that they hurt. ‘Put them in,’ Wendell demands. ‘I’m not going to stand around here all day and watch you looking like some toothless idiot.’ Frank acquiesces, but his hands are shaking badly and he can’t get the dentures into his mouth; in frustration, he throws them across the room. Wendell picks them up, ‘soil and grime and dog hair all stuck to them by saliva’, and – in one of the book’s many small, cruel moments of drama – tries to force them in:

He starts bellowing like a cow, then runs out of air and starts wheezing, grabs my wrist and tries to wrench it away, but I keep it right where it is, pull the partial off and shove it on again, a little harder this time, so hard my fingers slip off and jab his pulpy, wet palate. He bites my hand.

As I read this scene, and others like it, I found myself thinking of William Carlos Williams’s story ‘The Use of Force’, in which a country doctor attempts to examine a young girl’s throat, checking for diphtheria. She resists; he forces her. There’s no question of the necessity of the examination: the child has a potentially fatal disease, it’s his duty to treat her. But the scene very quickly becomes animalistic, not the carrying out of duty but of violence. ‘I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it,’ Williams writes. ‘It was a pleasure to attack her.’ Between Wendell and Frank, too, one sometimes senses not care-taking but a struggle for dominance. What’s moving about this, and what resonates beyond the peculiar circumstances of these two men, is how well the book understands that Wendell’s cruelty is a consequence of his helplessness, of the long, sustained panic of watching someone you love slowly die.

For the six decades of their relationship Wendell and Frank have hidden from the world, living in a house in the woods, isolating themselves absolutely, perhaps implausibly, from their family, colleagues and friends. Time is slightly difficult to pin down in the novel, but the men meet sometime shortly after the Second World War: ‘You could tell he hadn’t been home long from the war,’ Wendell says. ‘He stood stiff upright, as if constantly startled by the world around him.’ Their isolation is an extreme response to the homophobia of their small town, and one they cling to even as the prejudice that prompted it has faded. They never receive visitors or leave the house together; they go elsewhere to fetch their mail. Frank has a college degree, funded by the GI Bill, but takes a job in a factory, doing heavy physical labour; Wendell keeps a taxidermy shop in town. They divide the household chores between them, Wendell cooking, Frank cleaning. (The house grows increasingly filthy in the months after Frank’s stroke.) They have no friends; sometimes they keep a dog. The progress of their lives is one of steady diminishment. The trees around their house, Wendell says, ‘sealed us off like a splinter the skin’s grown over’.

At one point, Wendell considers the goldfinches Frank loves to watch from their porch. ‘They mark their territory, the males, by singing as they fly along its boundaries, drawing the sound like twine from branch to branch,’ he says. ‘It stays there, thrumming in the air, long after it fades from our ears.’ Boundary marked by song: a vision of seclusion as joyful retreat. But the question the book circles is whether the home these two men have made is a carefully guarded refuge or a prison allowing no escape. Seclusion may have been a rational response in 1950s North Carolina: Wendell is aware of the prosecution of gay men, of the fact that he and Frank stand to lose a great deal if they are found out. But it’s frustrating that, in the novel, their isolation also has the effect of sealing them off from history. There’s almost no mention of the ferment of the 1970s and 1980s, and none at all of the legal gains of the 1990s and early 2000s. And so it’s very hard to understand why the men remain so fiercely attached to an outdated invisibility that is anything but rational, given that it means turning their backs on the possibility of a fuller life, or even, by the end of the book, a bearable one. The image of invisible boundaries recurs later in the book, this time in a different key. Frank, even in his self-imposed exile, remains attached to the rituals of suburban masculinity, chief among them the keeping of an immaculate garden. He’s frustrated by a persistent bald spot on the lawn and fences it off, scolding their dog whenever she gets too close. Later, after he takes the fence down, he finds that the dog still won’t cross the boundary it marked:

She’d follow him right up to it, but she wouldn’t set a paw in the dirt, and when he cooed her name, she turned away as if she just couldn’t bear to hear it, the string imprinted in the air the way, if bound too tightly round a bird’s body to hold its wings in place while it dries, it leaves deep, permanent creases.

Like the dog they’ve trained too well, Wendell and Frank seem unable to accept the world’s possible welcome. Only once does Wendell make any mention of the increasing visibility of queer people, and when he does it’s in a tone of contemptuous dismissal: ‘Now, of course, they’re walking around as if it’s perfectly normal, now they’re “proud”, now they’re marching and chanting and streaming the bright rainbow flag of no nation I’ve ever heard of.’ ‘No nation I’ve ever heard of’: it’s not difficult to understand the bitterness with which Wendell greets a freedom that he must feel arrives too late. The bitterness deepens, with a damning mention of Aids: ‘It’s no wonder they’re all dying from social disease, acting like that.’

It isn’t just fear of an external threat that keeps Frank and Wendell hidden from the world, then, but a self-loathing, a toxic hatred of their sexual nature that coexists uneasily with their love for each other. ‘No one had ever known with him,’ Wendell says of Frank’s immaculate performance of heterosexuality. ‘He always prided himself on that.’ Wendell, by contrast, could never quite pass: ‘There was some softness in me that betrayed itself.’ After Frank’s mother dies, Wendell tells us how glad he is that she never learned of their relationship: ‘I didn’t want him to see the change in his mother’s eyes as the stain of understanding spread through them, seeping back through every memory and forward into every hope, so that no matter which way she looked, every sight of him was tinged with filth and soaked in sorrow.’ It’s possible to read in these lines something of the early trauma Wendell himself suffered, a trauma he hides from us, as from Frank: ‘It’s a bleak tale,’ he once said of his childhood, and he seems never to have said much more. Early in their relationship, we learn, Frank would wake to find Wendell sitting up in his sleep, pleading with someone, ‘with increasing desperation, no, please no’. When Wendell was 16, he says later, he ‘wanted desperately to die’. Instead he left home, and never saw his family again. This is as close as we come to seeing what he has suffered.

If one way of parsing the book’s title is as a verb in the imperative mood, another is as a noun denoting the animal skins Wendell preserves. The book luxuriates in scenes of him at work, going into great detail on the process of preparing skins for preservation. It’s hard to avoid a whiff of quirky preciousness in a novel narrated by a taxidermist. One can easily enough imagine the house in Hide as a Wes Anderson set, cluttered with deer heads and saccharine little dioramas such as the ‘turn-of-the-century squirrel couple out courting’ that Wendell has arranged in his studio. And there is something Salingeresque in Wendell’s early ruminations on his desire to use taxidermy to ‘make the world finally stop for a moment, to stay as it was’, a note of Holden Caulfield’s mournful musings at the Museum of Natural History. But there’s nothing sentimental about the way he treats his work. Griffin’s descriptions stink of the real, with carcasses smelling of ‘metal and excrement’, with ‘subcutaneous fat welling … in little yellow globules like fish eggs’. By the end of the book, taxidermy has become as fraught a mode of preservation as the two men’s solitude. Without children, without any public life, Wendell feels that his mounts – his art – are the best chance he has at leaving a lasting trace: ‘the best I can hope for is that some child, ten or twenty years from now, will see a dusty deer raising its head and think, for one moment, that it’s living.’ But taxidermy is an art not of life but of death made to look like life, something Wendell at his lowest moments suspects may be true also of his own existence. These fears, strikingly, are connected in the book to the homophobia around him. Wendell notes the way his customers – mostly weekend hunters wanting their trophies preserved – treat him with suspicion, sensing that ‘softness’ he was never successful in hiding. ‘My own customers always looked at me a little askance … as if there must be something wrong with me to want to render this service they themselves wanted rendered.’ Here, too, may be a hint of the past he won’t disclose, the trauma that taught him what he still believes to be the truth about himself, that he is somehow monstrous.

Wendell is fascinated not just by the hides of roadkill and hunting trophies but by Frank’s skin. It’s a ‘knotted chaos’, covered with tattoos: souvenirs of Frank’s time in the war, which he hides beneath long sleeves even on the hottest summer days. They change with the years as his body changes, becoming a record of ageing: ‘The birds on his chest sag earthward, their wings slipping on the air, and the sky on his shoulder is wrinkled in some spots and stretched pale in others, distorting the stars fixed in it.’ In the novel’s most tender scene, Wendell bathes Frank after he has soiled himself: ‘The skin of his thighs hangs wrinkled and loose in those places where it used to strain to hold in the brunt meat of him. I lift each fold, spread it flat across the plastic seat, to wipe its underside.’ He observes Frank’s body with the same intensity and precision he brings to animal hides, describing the ‘sharp, cloudy’ smell of him, the way ‘his socks have worn all the blond hairs away from his calves, left the skin smooth and shiny.’ Given how well Griffin writes about bodily intimacy, it’s striking that there is so little sex in the book. Wendell acknowledges his desire for the attractive young men who work at the local grocery store, but appears to feel none – and to have felt none for a very long time – for Frank. There’s one sex scene in the book, their first time sleeping together, and it’s almost perfunctory, quick to retreat to convention: ‘He … held himself just slightly above me … looking at me much longer and more closely than I was accustomed to, and in a way no one had ever looked at me before: as though he were seeing, all of a sudden, the answer to a question he’d been asking for a long, long time.’ By comparison, here is the scene that precedes it, in which Wendell and Frank skin a deer:

The further up we went, along the smooth length of the neck, the thinner the skin became, and the more tightly it clung to the body. The membrane that joined it to the muscle snapped across our nails and wedged tight beneath them. I watched our fingers creep under it, a little bit at a time, along the warm, slick neck, all the way to the top of the spine, nearly to the skull, until the skin was so delicate and married to the muscle we could see it stretch across our fingertips, the hairs that covered it spreading apart to show the pale hide underneath.

This act is surprisingly, skilfully erotic, an unconventional and entirely convincing seduction.

Recently, in the Guardian, Griffin published an essay calling for gay literature to explore long-term relationships, arguing that the new freedoms purchased for queer people by marriage equality should be reflected in fiction. Much of gay literature, he suggested, ‘is rooted not in the drama of long-term relationships but in the sharp pang of sex, in the search for love in immediate beauty and physical pleasure’. (My own novel, which Griffin discussed generously, was included in this category.) I can’t imagine anyone dissenting from Griffin’s call for more books that explore the new models of queer life available in an age of unprecedented (though still very partial and unevenly distributed) acceptance. But I caught my breath a little at his statement, towards the end of the piece, that ‘long-term commitment is now a real possibility,’ as if queer people had been waiting for state sanction. Surely this was a slip, I thought, an editing error: and, indeed, Hide shows that Griffin doesn’t really think this. More problematic is the essay’s distorted view of queer literature, which hasn’t waited for state sanction to explore long-term commitment any more than queer people have. In his survey of gay novels, Griffin leaves out writers from Mary Renault to Gordon Merrick, whose bestselling, sexually daring Charlie and Peter trilogy explores a life-long relationship between two men. He ignores the novels of Iris Murdoch, whose A Fairly Honourable Defeat, from 1970, features one of the most compelling portrayals of marriage between two men I know of. And he makes no mention of contemporary writers like Carol Anshaw, Michael Lowenthal and Stacey D’Erasmo, whose work explores the inventive, nimble and durable shapes queer families have taken before and since marriage equality. One does want more books exploring those shapes – one wants more queer books, period – but it’s odd to pretend that gay writers haven’t been addressing long-term commitment for a very long time.

And in spite of his complaint, Griffin’s novel isn’t about the new and more expansive shapes queer lives can take in the era of marriage equality. It’s about the way lives and relationships are formed and deformed, sometimes in extreme ways, by repression and the terror of exposure. It’s part love story, part horror show. As Frank’s condition worsens, Wendell locks him in the house, and then finally in a single, stinking room, with a bucket for a toilet. By the novel’s end, Frank is almost entirely lost to dementia, torn between a fantasy life in which, heartbreakingly, he and Wendell have a daughter and live openly, accepted by Frank’s family, and a reality in which Wendell is less a lover or a caregiver than a jailer, and Frank himself is ‘like something children would see in their dreams and wake up crying’. The book’s most convincing scenes offer a very dark vision: like much else in human life, they argue, marriage is hell.