Reviews

 

From The Boston Globe: (Taller Women): “Through fresh vision and sprightly energy, Naumoff spins farce and ghoulish imagery into a web of analysis of why contemporary love stands so little chance.  His surreal surface humor does not mask his despair.  The novel crackles with metaphors and parables…Vivid imagery and a sugar-coating of humor help both to smooth and to enhance this cautionary tale’s provocative disquietude.  Naumoff presents it so vibrantly that it yields shocks of recognition.”

From The Washington Post(Taller Women): Naumoff’s satiric riff of a novel is all about men controlling women and women acquiescing in the name of love—to a surreal degree.

The British Editions:

From Time Out (Rootie Kazootie):  “Captures with stunning realism the fears and dreams of his small-town characters as they tear each other apart emotionally. A painful but compelling tale of anger, desire and need, with an insight and sensitivity that borders on genius…essential reading.”

From Sunday London Times: (The Night of the Weeping Women): “Dark, powerful…the subject matter as treacherous as an unlit street. This vivid, commanding novel scorches into your mind, on its every page, the fact that once you have stopped loving you can never begin again.”

From The Independent (The Night of the Weeping Women): “Vicious, brilliant, harrowing and hilarious.  This is a tragedy on an almost operatic scale, but it is also a wild black comedy; the worse the nightmare gets, the more you laugh.  The most frightening scenes are the funniest.”

 

Review of The Night of the Weeping Women
Chicago Tribune 1988

Maybe the safest bet would be on Lawrence Naumoff , whose “The Night of the Weeping Women” has a good deal of shape to it, displays a lot of intelligence and craft and has a hearty exuberance that just avoids extravagant sentimentality. He addresses a serious subject, the woe that is in marriage and family life, and he performs with it in a way that would satisfy any veteran.

This is the most estimable of the three books, and none is slouch. The only reservation that one must make before investing heavily in Naumoff stock is the news on the flap copy that he was a promising young writer in the late `60s and early `70s who received a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship and other prestigious awards and then stopped writing for 14 years . . . .

Fourteen years? How intimidatingly sad! On the other hand, some of that epic sadness gets itself into the book: “The civilized world lived in houses. Within the houses the most uncivilized things took place. Family members ate into each other. They cut each other up and then ate from the leftover torsos with forks, all the while ignoring the screams of the children who knew they were next.”

Naumoff tells of a young couple and their illusions and expectations about themselves-which result, of course, from their own childhood wounds.

Their parents enter the book too, arriving in an equivalent of that scene in “A Night at the Opera” when all those people squeeze into Groucho`s tiny cabin. Not exactly subtle, it`s more than justified by the execution-as if Naumoff had pointed to some distant bleacher to show where he would wallop the ball and then did it.

Naumoff is a writer of considerable craft, but there is more to him than that. He brings a great brooding sympathy and generosity to his characters, and lights them so that they cast rich shadows.

 

DROLL NOVELIST, A COUPLE`S PAIN
Chicago Tribune - Monday, February 26, 1990

`She was going to be the only person still holding on to everything everyone else had let go of.” So resolved, Caroline, the spitfire heroine of this folksily funny but deadly true-to-life second novel, sets out to get her fool of a husband Richard back from the wily grip of Cynthia, a propertied divorcee.

The women Lawrence Naumoff creates do tend to be heroic. Both the rural North Carolina story in his first novel, “The Night of the Weeping Women,” and this one have a wife going yakkingly bananas chasing the wild goose of lost marital love. Her madness is ennobled by her fighting that modern-day epidemic futility. And if we pity her straying lunkhead husband-crabbed as he is by fears of what he won’t say or simply doesn’t know-we can`t care much for his pine-like personality or inner constitution of Jell-O.

Richard`s fondness for her bare feet has faded, but Caroline still tries to recoup his admiration for, if nothing else, her brass. She gets crudded from head to toe slogging through an impassable mud trench before guffaw in yokels. She plows their tractor through the back door of Cynthia`s mansion, where he`s moved in. She even seduces him after he`s made his break from her. To no avail.

Later, she swipes UPS packages containing exotic nuts and lingerie meant for her rival. En route to Cynthia`s for a second confrontation she forces another car into the swamp. Smeared with slime, she dons the undergarment “like a war bonnet,” screams wild oaths at the new couple and decks the divorcee.

She hates being poor and alone, and she talks endlessly about it all to total strangers-trying to figure out if what`s most disturbing is the loss of Richard to a rich fraud or the thing gone from their marriage before he`d left her.

There`s perhaps too much imaging in Naumoff , but it works. Usually it`s to burrow into a skull, such as Caroline`s: “Had a surgeon opened up her head that night, he would have jumped back in surprise. `What`s this,` he would have called out to the crew standing around. `This thing,` he would have said, `why, this thing is supposed to be over here, and this thing here, it`s supposed to be over there, and where`s the such-and-such, and, good God, what`s that?` “In both novels folks burp odiferously, break wind, laugh inbeeps, spill out truths, talk in suddenly undammed rivers and weep unaccountably.

And about the failed union between people, the words “broken life“ crop up in the novels-as if to say that that union is a mechanism no less fragile than its most fragile component.

Richard tells Cynthia that for 14 years he`s been married to Rootie Kazootie. That was the name of an early-`50s TV kids` show puppet little remembered today. Because a puppet is mechanism-as-life-perhaps also because of Rootie`s fragility in memory-the title is apt.

Rootie is like the comics` Joe Palooka, on whom Caroline once had a crush. “That`s the way things are when you`re young,“ she tells Richard, whose mind is elsewhere. “You fall in love with everything. It doesn`t work when you get older.“

Whatever his underpinnings, Naumoff bestows great craft and sensibility upon narration and, more so, dialogue. But nothing in his drollery undercuts his obvious sense of pain about troubled couplehood-nor gives the lie to the hope he offers at the end of “Rootie Kazootie.”

 

THE PRICE WOMEN PAY FOR LOVING TOO FREELY
The (NC) Charlotte Observer - Sunday, June 19, 1994

Frannie Vaughan is headstrong and free-spirited, a young woman who has always “laughed at life, eaten it whole, looked it in its eyes and stared it down, licked it down its middle like a cherry popsicle. . . . ”

She’s so free-wheeling, in fact, that she’s off messing around with yet another unsuitable man (three men, in fact) when her mother dies. By the time Frannie’s older sister Natalie locates her, Mama has already been buried.

Now Frannie and Natalie - the sensible, down-to-earth sister, engaged to a sensible, down-to-earth banker - must decide what to do with the family home place in Silk Hope, N.C.

For generations, the house and surrounding farmland have been handed down to the daughters in the line. That unusual arrangement was the legacy of their great-great-grandmother Delia, who made a big mistake with a man and found herself with nowhere to turn. Now the home place is to be a sanctuary for the women in the family, “no matter what else happened . . . between them and the men in their lives.”

It is that legacy on which Charlotte native Lawrence Naumoff ’s fine, endearing, fourth novel turns.

Alternately funny and moving, Silk Hope, N.C. is a story about the price women pay for loving too freely and living too fully - and about how, if they’re brave enough, they can save themselves.

Naumoff , who now lives in Carrboro, has won critical acclaim for his uncanny ability to immerse himself in his female characters.

In The Night of the Weeping Women (1988), Rootie Kazootie (1990), Taller Women: A Cautionary Tale (a 1992 New York Times Notable Book of the Year) - and now in this novel - he has created memorable women who may falter and stumble, but who ultimately are heroic.

Take Frannie, an appealing - if sometimes alarmingly reckless - young woman.

Her wisecracking ways and disdain for convention barely conceal the self-doubt that began when her father walked out years earlier. Under all her bravado, Frannie longs for family, safety, security - and is devastated by her absence from her mother’s deathbed and funeral.

Now Natalie and her fiance want to sell the old home to developers. Frannie’s deep-seated instinct is to hold onto the property. It represents, she muses, “the sanctity that a strong and virtuous heart had created out of deceit and despair.”

Her feelings are bolstered not only by recalling the story of Delia, but also by her discovery of an old photograph of a smiling, vibrant young woman. The woman, Frannie learns, is her great-aunt Daphne, who was declared insane and institutionalized - “put away for being too happy.”

Determined to buy out Natalie’s share of the property, Frannie takes a job packaging men’s underwear in a local factory.

Her hapless approach to life gets her into one ludicrous predicament after another; the scene in which Frannie buys three pigs at a county fair and attempts to drive them home in her Chevrolet is enough to make you laugh out loud.

But gradually, as she learns to trust her own instincts, Frannie grows stronger and more confident.

“Let me tell you something, Mr. Man,” she explodes at Natalie’s patronizing fiance. “. . . You’re just a guy in pants who wears a tie and works in a bank and you don’t have crap to say about what I do in my life.”

Natalie, of course, disapproves. But in a final ironic twist, it is she who is betrayed, Frannie who is vindicated.

Naumoff has set his novel in a real N.C. community some 25 miles from Chapel Hill: Silk Hope, where the author once lived in a Victorian farmhouse.

His prose is understated and honest, filled with piercing insights into the relationships between men and women.

Occasionally the narrative is interspersed with philosophical meditations on one subject or another: women and passion, the color yellow, chastity and virtue. In the hands of a lesser writer, these ruminations might be jarring. In Naumoff ’s nimble fingers, however, they offer unforgettable illumination of the human condition.

“Sometimes,” he writes in one passage, “when people are just learning how to say no and aren’t used to it, they say yes first, like they always had, because they thought it was the right thing to do, and then, having learned they could say no, say it too late . . . especially women who think that the word yes is a brave and kind word, and the yes is supposed to make up for all the wrong that had been done in the history of mankind. . . . ”

Silk Hope, N.C. is filled with writing like that, brimming with thoughtful reflections on modern realities and age-old dilemmas. Naumoff has proved, yet again, that he is one of this state’s finest writers.

 

GRAND `PLAN’ - LAWRENCE NAUMOFF ‘S CLEVER, MOVING SATIRE ON MODERN RELATIONSHIPS
Chicago Tribune - Sunday, September 28, 1997

Even standing just above an earthquake’s epicenter, you wouldn’t be on shakier ground than the terrain Lawrence Naumoff ’s characters attempt to navigate. Since his first novel, “The Night of the Weeping Women,” Naumoff has mapped out in grand satirical strokes the pitfalls and pratfalls of contemporary relationships. Like any satirist worth his salt, Naumoff ’s sense of humor is cynical and dark. His notion of a plot is to pull the rug out from beneath his characters and watch them fall–but we’re never quite sure we ought to be laughing because with all that slipping and tumbling, someone, of course, is bound to get hurt.

At the center of Naumoff ’s fifth novel, “A Plan for Women,” are Walter and Louise. Walter is the director of Homes for Humanity in Chapel Hill, N.C. He is a compassionate and tender man, and he longs to make the world a better place, a place where people aren’t so run down by their toils and troubles. And women, Walter observes, seem to have gotten the worst of it, though he can’t for the life of him say why that is: “Why was it, Walter thought, that the faces of women seemed changed? More glamorous than ever, they seemed, at the same time, sad and degraded, as if the women had only recently discovered something terrible, as if these women were refugees from a long war. . . .”

Louise, though, appears to be something else entirely. “Louise’s face was clear and perfect and bright. She had a purity and strength beneath her chatty Southern femininity that made her attractive to Walter in a way no other woman had ever been.”

And the best thing about Louise, “a trusting country girl in a clean white nurse’s uniform,” is that she doesn’t even recognize why she’s so special. She “skipped along the surface,” Naumoff writes, “not knowing exactly what it was about her everyone wanted, not understanding how lucky the man who found her heart would be, simply enjoying life and seducing, in an oddly innocent way, everyone around her–her patients, her family, her friends, and Walter.”

Louise and Walter seem destined, then, for a perfect life–except that there’s another man whom Louise, in her oddly innocent way, seduced before she stumbled upon Walter. And this man, a sadistic English instructor named Rob, has a videotape that shows just how unpure, how degraded, Louise can be.

When Rob dementedly determines that Louise has betrayed him by marrying Walter, he re-enters her life, reminds her of Exhibit A, and succeeds in dismantling both Walter’s and Louise’s own notion of who she is.

Swirling around the central action of the novel are other characters who serve as compass points by which Louise and Walter navigate their lives and choose the path they’ll take. There is Walter’s sister, Mary Pristine, who is anything but. There are Louise’s long-suffering mother and cruel father. There is a woman named Shirley who lives in one of the houses built by Homes for Humanity just next door to Walter, a woman heinously abused by her boyfriend, Manny. And there is, in the latter portion of the novel, an amnesiac man who seems to summon in women the same response that Louise, before her fall, summoned in men. He’s so pure and innocent they just want to sweep him off his feet and eat him up.

Much of this action seems a bit perfunctory, underdeveloped, the characters not wholly in focus, their actions not entirely convincing. But “A Plan for Women” is, at its heart, a satire. We’re not meant to take it all too seriously.

Even so, there’s the matter of that videotape. After brooding over the awful turn in his and Louise’s life, Walter finally resorts to action. He concocts a plan to save Louise, to save his marriage, to restore his notion of what women can and should be.

The ways in which Walter succeeds and fails–the ways he and Louise both succeed and fail–bring Naumoff ’s astute and ultimately moving novel to its fitting conclusion, reminding us again that observed from a distance, the machinations of our lives seem absurd and utterly comical. Up close, though, it’s a different story. Up close, you can see how we’re trying, with all our hearts, to get a steady foothold, to concoct a plan just to keep ourselves upright.

 

THE UNFAIR SEX - A ROGUES’ GALLERY OF MEN BEHAVING BADLY
Washington Post - Friday, August 22, 1997

Remember how Franklin Roosevelt used to get criticized by the rich for being “a traitor to his class”? If Lawrence Naumoff isn’t careful, he might find himself facing a lynch mob made up of men. In his new novel, “A Plan for Women,” he betrays his gender, trashing men in ways that women, strangely enough, have been generally too kind-hearted to attempt.

The men Naumoff writes about aren’t primarily oppressive brutes. There are a couple of those, sure, but the men who get star billing here are those we might think of as regular guys. These are guys many women have met; we talk about them to each other, but we don’t write that stuff down. It’s just too awful and sad. Naumoff isn’t fair; he stacks the deck. He doesn’t make it clear that this behavior refers to just some men some of the time. And he lets women off scot-free. Nevertheless, he may be on to something.

First, the characters here: Louise, a sturdy, pretty, high-spirited nurse, falls in love with Walter, a Jimmy Carter-ish do-gooder type. He will soon be fired from his job in an affordable-housing agency because he gives houses only to blacks even though some whites need them much more. Louise doesn’t want her marriage to be the way her parents’ marriage is. Her mother, Dorothy, is married to Vincent, who uses his wife as a counterweight when he repairs the roof. Diarrhea is the staple of his small talk, and he’s developed public flatulence into his high art.

One of Walter’s affordable houses is inhabited by Shirley, who is down on her luck, and Manny, who hits her from time to time with a curtain rod. And Walter has a black-sheep sister, a smart woman named Mary who’s slept with too many men, but she can’t stand the men she finds out there. They’re just too foul. One of the most foul is Rob, an intellectual professor-type who keeps videos of girls he’s had sex with. One of the videos happens to feature the pretty Louise. (Yes, she’s had that one)

The novel consists of vignettes. We see flatulent Vincent requiring his wife for assistance in car repair, directing her to “Bounce the car . . . bounce the car!” We hear him confide to all who will listen the daunting details of his gastric disabilities. We see Walter, after he’s been fired, out on a farm that he’s designed to help the needy. He’s decided that the needy need goat meat, and he requires Louise to help him kill a goat. He wants to drown it. By nature, a goat doesn’t want to be drowned.

Manny, the curtain-rod guy, keeps on beating Shirley. She thinks that means he loves her. Then foul Rob resurfaces, with Louise’s video. Walter finds out about it.

We’ve seen ordinary villains like Manny and Rob in books and in movies, but most of us, I hope, haven’t been blackmailed by perverts or had our bones broken by maniacs. I’m going to break ranks now and say that many women I know have been exhorted to bounce the car, bounce the car, by men who — to the outside world — present themselves otherwise as perfectly reasonable human beings. These are the men who drive women bats.

Walter, through a shift of plot, gets his hands on that unfortunate video, and his lectures to pretty Louise become ever more convoluted and vile. His whole thrust, so to say, is to persuade her that she is the symbol and sponsor of all that is wrong in the world, and he a symbol and sponsor of all that is right.

Naumoff has his theories about why men act this way: He ties this behavior to female sexual liberation and the panic it set off in males. I don’t think so. (And it goes without saying that in real life both men and women spend Hell’s own amount of time trying to transcend these embarrassing patterns.) But I imagine that the minute Adam and Eve left the portals of Paradise, Adam probably said, “We’re going to kill a goat for food; you hold him down. Go ahead. Sit on him if you have to. Lie down on his stomach. Now grab his legs. All four of them! Now hold down his head. Hold him still. Now bounce him. Bounce the goat.”

And the misunderstandings between men and women began.

 

Doors to nowhere in Hamlet
News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC) - Sunday, August 14, 2005

Lawrence Naumoff is no stranger to fire — to its destructive and regenerative power. In 1977, the novelist’s Victorian house burned to the ground. He lost everything.

Twenty-eight years and five successful novels later, Naumoff uses the 1991 fire at the Lionel Chicken Plant in Hamlet that killed 29 and injured 49 people as the backdrop for his sixth novel, “A Southern Tragedy, in Crimson and Yellow.” It is Naumoff’s most unusual novel. In it he combines imagination, exhaustive research, North Carolina history and politics to create an unnerving, graphic, but oddly beautiful docufiction.

This novel comes with a warning: “not to waste time trying to figure out who this or that character is … you’ll go nuts … some things will seem real and others are made up … it’s that freedom that makes a novel what it is.” Naumoff takes full advantage of creative freedom, which in this harrowing tale is all to the good. He collapses and expands time, moves between tenses and voices with startling control, inhabits the minds of several intriguing characters, peppers the book with his unerring, signature dialogue riffs and places the reader inside the plant on that fateful day. In this way, Naumoff transforms news into art.

Most stories of tragedy or disaster begin close to the main event, but Naumoff starts the novel in 1919 when Hamlet was a busy mecca for the railroads and merchant class. As in most boomtowns of the early 20th century, the early residents of Hamlet believed in endlessly renewable prosperity. Their daily lives seemed ordained as, “a thousand tons of rail stock rolled by … directed and aimed, the momentum governed supernaturally, metaphysically, as if divinity was truly, and not just in sermons, but was truly in the labor of mankind.”

They couldn’t foresee a time when getting out of debt rather than enjoying an evening at the town’s opera house would rule their lives. Time and economics — the Great Depression, a second World War, the demise of the Buttercup Ice Cream Co. — changed Hamlet. By 1991, “unemployment was just under 11% in the county,” Naumoff writes. For the remaining residents, “It was the chicken plant, or nothing.”

Made of brick and concrete that “crushed your bones,” the chicken plant was an entry to hell, “a dangerous, illogical maze with partitions added over the years … and doors that led nowhere, a fire trap that no one thought could burn.”

As in his previous novels, “A Southern Tragedy” has a strong female protagonist, Ellie McCorkle. On the day of the fire, Ellie’s first day of employment at the plant, she discovers the diary of her great-great-great-grandmother, Emily Austin. Ellie sees herself in the woman she never knew, a woman writing haunting entries of grief over her dead child. Ellie is single, in love, poor, pregnant, unmarried and desperate for money. The diary provides her with a connection to her merchant class roots even as it foreshadows the sorrow that will come when greed, racism and bad judgment takes its victims in the fire.

The fictional and the actual fire story contain an alarming phrase: “locked exit doors.” The rabbit-warren of poorly lit, barely ventilated rooms where vats of oil cooked over open flames were fueled by a leaking hydraulic hose snaking along the grease-covered concrete floor. The exit doors were locked. On purpose. It was management’s way of controlling a work force made up mostly of female African-Americans who might be tempted to skip out with a chicken wing or breast during or after their shifts. It didn’t matter whether the theft was real; the threat of theft was sufficient justification for turning a place a labor into a deathtrap. It’s a familiar American fire story. Like the real Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, Our Lady of the Angels School fire of 1958 and The Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire of 1911, “locked exit doors” made safety impossible. The owners of the real plant went unpunished.

Naumoff departs from the actual story, but one never doubts he has depicted the truth in ways mere facts cannot. The book is worth reading for the arresting, completely original description of the plant’s racist manager, Buck Ellis, as he catches fire. It is also distinguished by beautiful passages that capture the inexpressible: “She understood though not in any way she could have told it, the stillness, how the soul evaporated and moved on, the face there and not there, not the same, like a drawing of her father, like a blind person who could not see her, that was how she felt.”

In “A Southern Tragedy,” Naumoff offers the reader what the journalist cannot: people we can’t help but love; hard workers whose interior lives, disappointments, hopes and longings are rendered with an historian’s accuracy; a novelist’s imagination; a poet’s eye; and an humanitarian’s heart.

###

From ‘A Southern Tragedy’ by Lawrence Naumoff

Dying in the chicken plant on the floor under blankets of smoke, soot, gases and toxic particles, not to mention heat and flames hurtling above in the room like meteors flashing by in the nighttime sky, was the ugliest sight Buck Ellis had ever presented to the world.; He tried to yell but all the words were coming out now like grunts, like hog sounds.; After death by carbon monoxide, convulsions followed. Buck motivated across the room like he was break dancing, like he was some street dude with a boom box who had hit the sidewalk in a cool move and was now on his side, then on his back, then on his side again, break dancing and sliding and jerking around in circles and across the floor. Technically, the movements were not Buck’s attempt to finally learn to dance, or some secret desire to be an African American, even though he was now that color, from head to foot, inside his mouth and nostrils and even under his fingernails, but the movements were because brain damage was occurring.; The problem with rescuing someone from a carbon monoxide death, with saving them from actual physical death, was that the brain damage continued for weeks, and the pyramid cells in the hippocampus portion of the brain continued to die for those days or weeks that followed. If Buck were to live, he would eventually have little more to offer the world than one of the cucumbers he grew in his garden.; Alone in the middle of the processing room, Buck break danced across the floor, first in one direction and then another, jerking inward and then opening up quickly like a really cool move, again and again. His legs kicked like he was running on his side, like he was trying to spin and run around in circles while he lay there, and he threw his head back and forth and clutched his arms to his chest as if he was hugging someone only to throw them open again.; He skidded and bounced along the floor until he rolled over a pair of boots that someone had leaped out of when running away. He convulsed a few more times and these last violent floor-bound leaps threw him against the legs of the women trapped against a locked door.; Then, as if he were trying to ascend, as if his soul was trying to get out of his doomed and sinful body and move up to heaven, but failing, he rose off the floor and up into the air and into the crowd of women, who screamed even louder in the dark as the massive weight of Buck Ellis hovered over them and then fell back to the slab, the same piece of perfect concrete work that years earlier men had labored to lay on the ground so that for as long as possible and for all the good that could come of it, people would be gathered upon it to earn a way to live and survive.