The Night of the Weeping Women by Lawrence Naumoff (Atlantic Monthly Press/A Morgan Entrekin Book: $16.95; 212 pages)
This chilling novel is gall divided into three parts. The first is a bitterly sardonic account of the daily life of Ervin and Margaret Neal, whose daughter Sally is married to Robert Zilman, himself a refugee from an oppressive family. In the mordantly funny second section, the Neals and the junior and senior Zilmans are joined by the desperate divorcee Angie, inexplicably attracted to the repellent Ervin and the sweet but sluttish Catherine, who comforts Robert in his moment of need. The last short segment presents a vision of a future marginally better than the past, the way Bolshevik Russia was an improvement over life under the czars.
The book begins as the Neals are setting off to visit Sally and Robert, who have bought a derelict farmhouse 150 miles from the family home in Wilmington, N.C., choosing a place they hoped was far enough away to discourage casual drop-ins but sufficiently close so that the parents wouldn't need to stay overnight. Making other people miserable is Ervin Neal's sole reason for existence; everything else in his life merely incidental. Now that his daughter is no longer handy, his sole outlet for his free-floating loathing is his wife, who cannot possibly absorb it all. "Having nowhere to go with all that hatred was hard on Ervin Neal. It left him with the taste of frustration so bad it was like chewing tin foil with his lips wired shut."
Ervin rates an adversary worthy of his spiteful vindictiveness, but Margaret has managed to insulate herself so thoroughly that abusing her is no more satisfactory than kicking a steel fire door. There's no give there. Most of the time, Margaret manages to pretend that marriage to a man who doesn't speak to her, who avoids even sitting in the same room or sharing a meal, is a nuisance like living with a hypochondriac or a man who refuses to put his clothes in the hamper: merely something a woman learns to endure.
Traditional Wifely Virtues
There's nothing hateful about Margaret--in fact, she seems to embody more than her share of the traditional wifely virtues. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, she continues to hope that Ervin will change.
Sally Neal Zilman doesn't harbor any such unrealistic expectation. She not only despises her father from the depths of her being, but has good reason to be contemptuous of her long-suffering mother. If the novel were entirely confined to the hermetic world of the Neals and the Zilmans, the story would be in danger of consuming itself in its own acid. Naumoff has wisely provided some comic relief in the person of Catherine, the waif Robert picks up after discovering that his wife, Sally, has had 37 premarital affairs. At this point, Robert doesn't know what drove Sally to such promiscuity, but he is profoundly disturbed at being number 38, instead of a barely tolerable 5 or 6. Robert's adventures with Catherine are as diverting as his father-in-law's encounters with the eager Angie are depressing; the two adulteries neatly contrapuntal.
Marriage is not only the theme of this novel, but its plot. Despite the farcical situations and the affectingly sympathetic portraits of Sally and Robert as innocent victims of ghastly mismatches, "The Night of the Weeping Women" is a genuine American horror story. The ratio of the preposterous to the plausible constantly shifts until the end of the book, when the balance tips in favor of stark reality.
There are three kinds of marriages on display here--destructive, precarious and hollow, in addition to the two dismaying portrayals of the single state exemplified by Catherine and Angie. Take your choice.