Crook’s Corner Bar & Café honors a terrific debut novel
By D.G. Martin
More than a thousand books connected to North Carolina are published each year. There is no way to read them all or even find and give recognition to the best and most important of them.
But we can try. One of the best things we can do is to establish awards and prizes to give shout-outs to the best books in particular areas of fiction, poetry, history, biography and so on.
One of the newest, and one of the best, of these recognition programs is the Crook’s Corner Book Prize. Each year it honors the best debut novel set in the American South. The prize, inspired by the prestigious book awards long given by certain cafés in Paris, is a collaboration between Chapel Hill’s iconic restaurant Crook’s Corner Bar & Café and a sponsoring foundation.
Each year’s winner gets $5,000 from the foundation and a free glass of wine at Crook’s Corner every night for a year.
This year’s winner, Matthew Griffin, grew up in Greensboro and graduated from Wake Forest. He teaches writing, most recently at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Griffin’s novel, Hide, is the story of two older men who have lived together for many years at the edge of a small North Carolina town. Frank is a World War II veteran, tough-talking and covered with tattoos. Wendell is a taxidermist who serves the hunting community. These two hardly fit the caricature images of being gay. But they are gay, and they have paid a heavy price for it. For years there was isolation from family, and unrelenting and constant fear that, somehow, someone would blow the whistle to law enforcement about their illegal relationship and activities.
The greatest power of the novel is not, however, in any testimonial argument or inside look at the gay lifestyle. Quite the contrary, the story’s power comes from the tortured and tender way in which Wendell and Frank adapt to Frank’s rapidly deteriorating physical and mental condition.
When Frank suffers a stroke while tending the tomato plants in his beloved garden, the ambulance rushes him to the hospital, and Wendell follows. But because only family members are allowed to accompany Frank, Wendell tells the attendant that he is Frank’s brother. When he is asked to show identification, he fumbles and then tells the attendant he left his wallet at home. He is worried that if she saw his last name was different from Wendell’s, his lie about being a brother would cause more trouble.
As Frank’s condition declines, there is a growing emptiness in the lives of both men. No children or nieces and nephews or other family members show up to care for them or to claim little items that the men have treasured.
Frank’s loneliness is tempered by a little dog named Daisy that Wendell found at the pound and gave to Frank.
Frank is shattered when the dog is torn to pieces in an accident in his garden. Wendell, crushed by Frank’s loss, begins a project to use his taxidermy skills to re-create Daisy from the parts remaining from the accident.
One of the novel’s most poignant moments comes when Frank discovers the incomplete project and, though failing steadily, he falls in love again with the half-stuffed dog.
As the novel closes, this reader was moved not so much by the problems Frank and Wendell had as gay people, but the challenge of finding meaning at the end of life.
Wendell, who always fixed the meals, has trouble adjusting to cooking for just himself when the bedridden Frank eats only nutrient shakes. He has too much time to fill and finds “the biggest danger of all is an empty space in the day. It’s easy, then, for the whole thing to break through and rush in and join the emptiness inside.”
“You just go on living,” Wendell says. “You don’t have to have a reason.”
The novel’s poignant story should not lead readers to overlook Griffin’s lovely writing. His description of a Southern funeral gathering, the process of breaking down an animal’s body and rebuilding it as a trophy, the joy and disappointments of gardening, sex, love and much more turns Frank and Wendell’s lives into poetry.
The major problem with Griffin’s first novel is that it will be difficult for him to write a better one.
D.G. Martin’s UNC-TV North Carolina Bookwatch interview with Matthew Griffin will air Sunday at noon on April 30 and Thursday at 5 p.m. on May 4. Bookwatch also airs on the North Carolina channel Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Martin’s wife, Harriet Martin, serves on the board of the Crook’s Corner Book Prize Foundation.