by Matthew Griffin
Bloomsbury/Macmillan | 2016
Hardback: 272 pages (978-1-63286-338-6)
ARC was provided free of charge by Bloomsbury/Macmillan in exchange for my honest opinion.
I was on my way to the window to flip my notice from OPEN to CLOSED…and there he was, standing on the train tracks…
“Excuse me”, I yelled. “Were you looking for something?”
“Naw,” “Nothing in particular.” “Frank Clifton.”
“Wendell Wilson.” “Pleased to meet you,”
he said, smiling wide and earnest, and I thought I’d be struck down by it, the way it struck down mortals to behold Zeus in his full, blazing divinity.
A war-weary veteran of World War II arrives home by train, unsure what the future holds for him in his small southern hometown. Frank Clifton has battled more than the recent enemy aboard; he has had a lifelong battle to suppress his inner emotional and physical needs.
Wendell Wilson, then 23 and a self-trained taxidermist, stands in the window, looking at his yet undiscovered future. Reviled by his parents as a teen, aware at the tender age of 14 as his “friend Paul pulled his sweaty, dirt-streaked shirt over his head” and plunged into the water off the bridge that from that moment his life would be in some way…alone.
It’s the 1940s. Homosexuality, always abhorred, has suddenly become negatively visible in public discourse. Preachers pound the pulpit and rail against its sinful and immoral nature. Psychiatrists and medical staff consider it a serious mental disorder. And civil authorities have laws criminalizing homosexual behavior.
“Love at first sight”, that deeply felt and openly displayed reaction between two people is not permitted outside of traditional relationships. Wendell and Frank dance around each other when they meet, afraid to hope, praying to find someone they can love. And they do. But their love comes at a tremendous cost.
Frank, the apple of his mother’s eye, cannot break ties with her. He is well known in the town and he has so carefully avoided any suspicion that he knows that he must continue to maintain that false identity in public. Wendell and Frank are never seen in public together. They must always be on guard against discovery.
After Frank’s mother dies, the two men purchase a secluded home far from town where they live and love openly in their refuge. Frank, college trained, gives up the promise of a well-paying career, to work as a mill worker. His decision to isolate himself from his old friends and family is painful for everyone.
Until. Frank, now 83, is found laying in his garden, the victim of a stroke. The like-wise elderly Warren, must open their lives for help and yet maintain their cover becoming Frank’s brother to the world.
Through Warren’s voice, we learn about their feelings, their personalities and their weaknesses. Most importantly we learn about their years of painful sacrifices endured for the most human of all emotions…the right to love. Could most of us deny ourselves 50+ years of publicly expressing our love for our partners? Openly, unashamed?
Frank’s curmudgeonly personality is at times amusing and at times cruel. As his mind slips back and forth in time, Warren must adapt and hold on tight. To do otherwise, would again leave him alone…
The story has harsh elements that might be too strong for some readers. Warren’s avocation, taxidermy, plays a graphic central role and in one instance is hard to stomach. At times the reader is left wondering in Warren’s case…why did you stay and put up with Frank for all these years.
But ah. Who are we to understand the depths of another’s love relationship? Who can deny that these two men lived a true marriage in name only if not in fact?