Too often, literary gays die young or are left in perfect stasis. Hide’s characters grow old and are never perfect, and that makes for a compelling, vital book.
Readers often compare good literary writing about love between two men to Brokeback Mountain, because of the quality of Annie Proulx’s novella and the popularity of its critically acclaimed film adaptation but primarily because it’s often the only popular gay dramatic piece the reader has ever been exposed to. Matthew Griffin’s Hide is the rare novel that actually warrants comparison to Proulx’s work. Like Brokeback Mountain tells the story of a love affair between two men in a time and place where such love was incredibly dangerous. The difference here is that, unlike Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis and Jack, Hide’s Wendell and Frank are able to make their relationship a priority, and the meat of the novel concerns their lives together as older men. Hide is a sad tale on many levels, but not a tragedy, which shows how far both society and publishing have come in the 20 years since Brokeback Mountain was published.
Frank and Wendell meet when Frank, a soldier, returns home to their Southern town at the end of World War II. Narrator Wendell, a taxidermist, immediately falls for Frank, and the flashbacks to their meeting and their early relationship will make even the most cynical heart flutter. Griffin has a particular skill for conveying the ways in even taciturn men express love, and often just a glance or a well-chosen word ignites sparks.
The novel starts with both men having entered old age. Wendell has aged better than Frank, whose minor stroke is the dramatic instigator that gets Hide’s plot going. Even after decades together, it is striking to see how Wendell and Frank take care to be seen as separate, as the North Carolina mill town where they live is homophobic and always has been. The men have isolated themselves from their community as well as from anyone else who has entered their lives either by acquaintance or relation. What’s particularly devastating about the ways in which Griffin observes the life that Wendell and Frank have built is that it’s obvious that it’s a rarity. Even a silent, isolated relationship is more than the vast majority of rural gays of their era could even dream of.
Hide’s power lies in its small moments and observations. The way that Wendell and Frank divide the household chores is charming but also telling, as typical gender roles have not defined such duties like so many of their peers. These domestic duties also allow for moments of humor and sadness. Wendell cooks, and as Frank’s advancing age and illness robs him of his taste for things Wendell begrudgingly tries new and different things in order to find something for him to eat, which leads to some funny moments. However, Frank keeps the house, and as he begins to slip with age, so does their surroundings. These moments between men aren’t something readers have often been given and the pride, dignity and duty that Frank and Wendell express in their household roles is disarmingly profound.
For every small moment of joy and every happy flashback, however, Hide has two moments of pain, suffering or sorrow. While this is certainly honest, the level of cruelty on display eventually overloads the book in the horrible fate of one of Frank’s dogs. There are plenty of cruel scenes of the book, some of which go over the top, but the dog scene is a step too far. It feels as if Griffin was trying to take the Flannery O’Connor approach, but it’s simply too cruel for the level of sensitivity that he’s established with his storytelling. O’Connor and other masters of the Southern Gothic can be horrible and violent because the characters in their stories are symbols and archetypes. Griffin, on the other hand, creates very real characters who we genuinely feel for and then makes them (and their poor dogs) suffer.
While it can be cruel, there is a keen sensitivity to Hide that equips an already entertaining read with layers of insight and complexity. On the surface, it is a love story about two men whose relationship defied many odds. However, at the same time it is a story about what love looks like when stretched beyond recognition by societal suspicion, persecution and impossibility. Hide is an important novel because it allows readers to see a gay relationship over decades and to experience all of the pain and grime that comes with that. Too often, literary gays die young or are left in perfect stasis. Hide’s characters grow old and are never perfect, and that makes for a compelling, vital book.