No nation I’ve ever heard of
- 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’.
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