Deliberately paced, thoughtful story of men in love over many years against considerable odds.
Gay life in the South doesn't always take place in a colonial row house in Savannah or a beachfront condo in Myrtle Beach. In Griffin’s debut novel, it's lived out in the shadows in a run-down North Carolina mill town, where Wendell Wilson, a taxidermist, has lived a long and eventful life with Frank Clifton, a World War II veteran who melted Wendell’s heart the minute they met. Or melted the world, anyway, for with Frank’s smile, “the branches shuddered off their casts of ice, and the power lines broke free of their insulation, snapped taut and scattered it over the street in pieces that still cupped the hollow channel where the wire had run.” That’s some powerful allure. The title of Griffin’s novel is both noun and verb, for while Wendell works magic with the bodies of unfortunate animals, the men keep their relationship secret, lest they be hounded out of town. But now Frank is 83, has had a mild stroke, and has affairs to get in order. As Frank grapples with a faltering mind and body and difficult memories of war—crushing the head of an enemy soldier with a rock “ain’t the worst I did,” he grumbles—Wendell finds himself in the unwished-for role of caretaker. Griffin’s story sometimes feels derivative, with dollops of Annie Proulx here and lashings of Allan Gurganus there, with some Jane Smiley and perhaps Bobbie Ann Mason thrown in for good measure. But it also feels genuine, recounting the love of two very different people made to live in fear but who endure with considerable dignity, allowing for the occasional mishap. On that note, animal lovers will shudder at one terrible episode, late in the book, involving a dog and a lawn mower. Suffice it to say, it’s not for the squeamish.
An assured introduction. Readers will want to hear more from Griffin, though perhaps without sputtering motors and whirring blades.