Growing up is hard to do, and since the culture has grown down so obligingly to meet them, young people seem to do less and less of it -- or even want to. So it's refreshing to read a novel that actually dares to move beyond the adolescent discovery of sex and death to explore the true nature of the growing-up process.
Near Silk Hope, N.C. (where the silk industry never got off the ground because of spectacularly bad planning), "smart talking, wisecracking, free-spirit" Frannie lives with her sister, Natalie, in the big old farmhouse that has been left to the women of their family by their great-grandmother. She did that so that they "would always have a home. . . no matter what occurred between them and the men in their lives."
At 21, promiscuous and irresponsible, Frannie has spent her life looking for her father, one way or another, ever since he left the family when she was 8.
After her latest escapade, she comes home to find that her mother has died and been buried during her absence. The shock blows out the flames of her rebellion and the inner sadness that has fueled it takes over instead.
She removes the license plate from her car, the one that says, "YES." She broods about the remnant of the old farm that is now surrounded by new developments, and must be sold for taxes. Despairing at the prospect of facing "the rangy pack of mute dogs she has created out of the stupidity of her own life," Frannie ponders the wisdoms of history, human nature and her own family stories, for clues on how to go about growing up.
More perceptive now, she finds out how hard it is to regulate a life: "Things were mostly too funny, or too sad, but rarely anywhere in between, it was in between where it worked. She only knew that territory in passing, the way a traveler knew a point between two towns as she sped back and forth from one to the other, each day on the same road, looking for something but unable to stop."
Frannie meets new men, makes old mistakes and learns hard truths, while conventional Natalie, more interested in "not why things were but what to do about them," appears to forge steadily ahead, secure in her relationship with Jake, her smart, dependable fiance. How they solve the problem of the farmhouse, and how Frannie turns herself into someone who can be there when Natalie needs her, constitute the bare bones of the story. It has its faults, like Frannie, but, also like her, is irresistible, and apt in the end to overpower minor cavils of style and content.
For there are quibbles, of course. Mr. Naumoff, a native North Carolinian and, at his best, remindful of Clyde Edgerton at his, tells some of the best stories around, the kind that illustrate the poignancy and the fierce ironies of human life in both its serious and its frivolous modes. But the braiding together of the ridiculous and the grave is sometimes uneven, very much in line with Frannie's own unsettled connections between the two.
Also, though perhaps it's missing the point to demand literal reality from an author who sometimes notably bypasses it, Frannie's defective sense of history is annoying. She believes 1) that our 19th-century ancestors were joyless ("A long time ago, nobody smiled. Nobody at all.") and 2) that they did not care about truth ("In the past it was . . . common knowledge that it was unwise to know [the truth] or see it or think about it"). Granted, all this foolishness makes for a pretty paradox, namely, that her contemporary world, with all its laughter and freedoms and "truthseeking," is sadder than the one it replaced. Still, there's no excuse for allowing such superficial, wrong-headed notions to pass repeatedly for fact.
Mr. Naumoff's earlier books ("The Night of the Weeping Women," "Rootie Kazootie" and, especially, the troubled, unfocused "Taller Women: A Cautionary Tale") have been called "controversial" in their strong depiction of half-innocent women. "Silk Hope" may offend a different set of readers. In the process of growing up, Frannie decides that "because virtue had failed, sadness remained." That "knowing what was right and what was wrong was still the trick." I haven't heard the like of it since "Huckleberry Finn" or, maybe, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Ms. McDaniel is a writer who lives in Cumberland.
Title: "Silk Hope, NC"
Author: Lawrence Naumoff
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
Length, price: 352 pages, $21.95