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Bitterness Grows in an Iowa Family's Field of Shattered Dreams

THE BOOK OF FAMOUS IOWANS by Douglas Bauer; Holt; $22, 246 pages

September 10, 1997|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Upstairs in the Iowa farmhouse, the grandmother and the boy listen to the terrible words and more terrible silences from downstairs, where a marriage is being butchered. The only violence is a slap, but it is ravening destruction nonetheless.

The victims are a family's love and safety, and particularly the safety of the two helpless ones: the child too young and the grandmother too old to do anything but wait to learn what will become of their lives.

As many contemporary authors do when they renounce irony to write of pain, loss and tragedy, Douglas Bauer shifts his story out of today's America and into American memory. Placed in the late 1950s, it is a quite plain and ordinary story. What is distinctive is the emotion that drives it.

A young bar singer in Cheyenne, Wyo., and a sergeant from the nearby Air Force base fall in love and plan a life. She will find singing jobs and he will earn a good living as an airplane mechanic. These are two dreams of escape; hers from a treacherous existence, his from the grinding plod on his father's Iowa farm. But the father is killed in a tractor accident, and the young couple unreflectingly gives up dreaming and moves east to Iowa.

Punishing his dreams, Lewis Vaughn throws himself into dull 14-hour days of farm labor. Punished for hers, LeAnne simmers and skitters, alternates hyperemotional gaiety with depressive rebellion and, finally, when their son Will is 10 or 11, takes up with the pitcher on the local baseball team. The scandal shakes the conservative community; Lewis rages and LeAnne runs off and is not heard of again.

It is a poignant story but not a remarkable one, and although Lewis, LeAnne and her lover, Bobby Markum, are sensitively portrayed, they are not especially memorable. To write interestingly about a character is not the same as making a character interesting. When Will, in his 40s, recounts the tragedy, he offers more speculation about the meaning and motives of the three stricken lives than the lives can usefully sustain.

But "The Book of Famous Iowans" is not primarily about a small-town adult triangle. Its real subjects, who it develops with searing sensibility, are the boy and the grandmother. A child with no power, limited knowledge and limitless pain struggles to save himself. An old woman with no power, large knowledge and so venerable an acquaintance with pain as to become, itself, a kind of limit, no longer struggles but merely endures.

She also works on her scrapbook, snipping out articles about people she rates as famous Iowans. They must be nationally known and they must have achieved their stature outside Iowa. They have escaped, in other words. Escape from life's constrictions moves not only LeAnne and Bobby--their affair, their decision to run off together, her eventual flight from him as well--but also, in the onetime dreamer's choice of a narrow laboriousness, Lewis Vaughn. And it moves the scrapbook keeper.

A child cannot tolerate adult escape. It threatens and denies him. When Will's father and mother, both shattered, separately hug him, it is a hug no longer of parental bestowal but of parental entreaty. He needs their strength, not their pain. It is his right.

Will is flawlessly evoked as he struggles to know what is happening, to bear the blows that land on him and to fight back. He makes what he can of his mother's spirited gaiety, his father's stiff tenderness. He recounts his hero worship of the elegantly self-assured Bobby, who gives him pitching tips and demonstrates the use of a touch of glue in producing a curve ball.

Is that fair? Will wonders. The ball is not always fair, explains the sportsman. "Come back in 15 years and tell me then if you think it's fair or not to use a little glue when things aren't working out as they should."

Will has no glue when things begin to shatter. There are unexplained tensions and outbursts. His impeccably sober father lurches drunkenly into a ballgame and goes for Bobby. The late-night explosion follows. LeAnne goes off, hides out at a neighbor's, reappears, vanishes. Lewis goes missing for two nights and then returns.

Eventually there are explanations, but the book's finest passages are set in chaotic uncertainty. Will interrogates whichever parent he can find. He screams at them, spies on them, issues futile, tiny directives.

Nothing lightens the long silence, stiff with tension, that envelops the boy and his grandmother as they wait in their devastated house. Bauer evokes a family's Ice Age. The most ordinary routines--getting up, sitting down, moving across a room, washing up--become lead-heavy. The grandmother talks extra-loud to drown out "that deathly after-quiet that gives the sensation that the very air has been ransacked."

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