What do men want? The upper hand, as always, according to this offbeat, darkly comic novel about relationships, Naumoff's third (following Rootie Kazootie, 1990). Monroe is a 40-ish emergency-room doctor somewhere in North Carolina. Once he was a needy kid from a broken home; then he married the incomparable Katy, soaking up everything this generous woman had to offer until his possessiveness ended their idyll. Since their breakup, Monroe has turned into a compassionate knight, rescuing women like Lydia, a clerical worker at his hospital, demoralized after two failed marriages to ""crude, hard-drinking"" guys. But there's a catch to Monroe's chivalry, as Lydia (living with him at the start of the novel) is finding out: As she regains her assertiveness, Monroe's interest fades. ""They like us weak. I swear they do,"" she tells her friend Martha, just ending a long marriage to chauvinist Bob, who asks Monroe, ""Haven't you ever been mad enough to hit a woman?"" The doctor's been tempted, sure, but seeing the results of domestic violence, close up, every day, has powerfully reinforced Monroe's basic decency; besides, he has a new rescue mission. His neighbors' 18-year-old daughter Ronnie is begging for help, and Monroe fancies the idea of this wild, sensual, unhappy teenager as his infinitely malleable ""little gal."" They will start a new life in California; he sneaks her out of town, having turned Lydia loose and patched up his last ER patient, poor Martha, who had fared even worse with her new beau, an ex-con, than with Bob; his buddies had tied her to the balcony by her hair after she had obligingly pleasured them. ""Wantonness in women would always be punished."" So says the authorial voice, which becomes damagingly intrusive, the tail wagging the dog, as this underplotted novel progresses and its characters flatten out into case-histories; the best stuff is in the lighter, more playful first half.