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‘Hide’ a love letter to gay couple living in ’50s era South

About a hundred pages into Matthew Griffin’s extraordinary debut novel comes a scene that not only explains the book’s title, but foretells the self-imposed exile that unfolds within its pages with such understated eloquence.

Wendell Wilson and his lover, Frank Clifton, attending a family funeral at which they must betray no clue that they’re a couple, consider the advantage of buying a home where they can live undisturbed, with no one asking questions or peering into their private lives.

It’s 1950, a time when homosexuals were vilified, arrested, institutionalized, castrated and worse. Frank reminds Wendell that “they could put us in jail for this. They could lock us away for 60 years,” he says. “It’s a crime. We’re criminals.” By the time we read this passage, we know that they have been together for just that long, and that they have done the locking away all on their own.

The story unfolds through two parallel narratives. One begins when Frank, now 83, has a stroke that unravels the couple’s carefully tended privacy and threatens their staunch tradition of fending for themselves. The other traces the history of their relationship and describes the life they built in order to avoid the devastating consequences exposure would have meant during that time.

Through flashbacks, we find that the pair met a little after the close of WWII, when Frank, a vet returning to his a small hometown in North Carolina, wandered into a taxidermy shop and fell in love with its owner, Wendell. Before long, they buy a house on the outskirts of town and have their mail sent to different addresses.

Frank, who attends college on the GI bill, takes a low-paying job in the local textile mill, and they fall into a pattern: Wendell cooks, Frank cleans, Wendell shops, Frank gardens. Over the years, they adopt a series of dogs for company, do all their own home repairs.

Careful to conceal all evidence of their relationship, they’ve saved only a handful of photos taken during a single beach vacation together; they never risk another. No relatives visit, no friends drop in for cocktails. No dinners out, no movies. They have never appeared in public together.

Sixty years pass in this fashion, and times have changed: Men don’t have to hide their love — “now they’re romping through the streets and cavorting half-naked in leather harnesses.” All the sneaking around Frank and Wendell have done is no longer necessary, but that doesn’t mean they can stop it. When Frank’s memory begins to slip and he can’t be trusted on his own — at times he seems to have forgotten how to hide, or that it’s even necessary — the two continue to go it alone with bittersweet results.

Now an old married couple, their irritability and tenderness flash like lightning, both of them as scared now, for different reasons, as they were when they met. Griffin juxtaposes this jittery present with a past that, despite the lack of photographic evidence, Wendell remembers in exquisite detail: “[Frank] smiled when he saw me, sweat running down his face. His nose and cheeks were sunburnt just the faintest pink, so he looked perpetually embarrassed. It drove me a little wild.”

Everyday domestic imagery underscores the pair’s isolation and vulnerability: their addiction to the televised trial of a woman accused of drowning her crying child “just to muffle the noise”; a tug-of-war over a vacuum cleaner filched from the curb; weeks of cake-baking and fruitcake runs geared to satisfy Frank’s now-finicky appetite; the unexpected arrival of a landscaping crew that revives Frank’s fears of being outed.

Griffin, who was born and raised in North Carolina, has created two characters so endearing, infuriating and real they could be your own Southern grandparents crossed with the Odd Couple. There’s a lovely contrast between Wendell’s fussy bickering and his unabashedly poetic memories, some so sensual they come off the page like heat waves. Frank’s dread of discovery, his stubborn refusal to go down without a fight and his wide-eyed, conflicted longing for Wendell linger long after the story ends.

Though the losses Griffin describes are wrenching — in particular, scenes of Frank’s illness and the death of one of their pets — he leans into these excruciating scenes with the same unflinching care Wendell brings to his taxidermy. “This is what it takes to hold on to something,” he muses, as he meticulously prepares their dog’s corpse for stuffing and mounting, “to keep the things you’ve loved.”

In one of the book’s most affecting passages, Wendell struggles to make out the constellation of Gemini, which outlines the shapes of two brothers who couldn’t live without each other: “The stars, carved into the dark sky, glint. I try to pull three or four of them from the whole vertiginous mass and hold them separate, hold them apart, to see them only in relation to one another, and give that relation a shape and a story and a name: the Twins, descending from Olympus, scraping across the sky on their way to the underworld.”

At a time when the LGBT community continues to face harsh discriminatory laws, “Hide” not only bears witness to an embattled way of life we hope will never again be necessary, but brings to light the courage and sacrifice and passion that went into it, of which Wendell despairs no record will remain. “And when we’re gone,” he says, “nobody will remember any of it.”

Griffin’s beautifully down-to-earth love letter, however, ensures we will.

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