Picks and Pans Review: The Book of Famous Iowans

updated 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

Douglas Bauer

The grandmother of Will Vaughn, the 12-year-old boy at the center of this subtle and poignant novel, has a firm criterion for determining a famous Iowan: The person must have achieved national recognition and done so someplace outside of the state of Iowa, "making it virtually impossible for famous Iowans to be presently living in Iowa."

During the course of the novel, Will's mother—who had been a saloon singer in Cheyenne, Wyo., before she married Will's dad and moved with him to a farm in Iowa—has an affair with the pitcher on the local baseball team, one of her son's heroes. It is 1957: Ike is President, Perry Como is on TV, and the consequences of such an affair in the God-fearing town of New Holland are dire. Iowa feels like a prison, and Will's mother is determined to escape at any cost.

The Book of Famous Iowans reconstructs Will's attempts to make sense of the sudden rent in his family; it is a boy's elegy for his lost mother. And some real Iowans—film actress Jean Seberg and pitching great Bob Feller—make cameo appearances, helping Bauer's third novel live up to its beguiling title. (Holt, $25)

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