The Book of Famous Iowans: A Novel

Overview


Will Vaughn, a man of late middle age living in Chicago with his second wife, remembers the month of June 1957 in his hometown, the rural village of New Holland, Iowa. More precisely, Will remembers just a few days of that month and the quick sequence of astonishing events that have colored, ever since, the logic of his heart and the moods of his mind. He tells of his stunningly beautiful young mother, Leanne, who liked to recall the years of the Second World War, during which she sang with a dance band in a ...
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Overview


Will Vaughn, a man of late middle age living in Chicago with his second wife, remembers the month of June 1957 in his hometown, the rural village of New Holland, Iowa. More precisely, Will remembers just a few days of that month and the quick sequence of astonishing events that have colored, ever since, the logic of his heart and the moods of his mind. He tells of his stunningly beautiful young mother, Leanne, who liked to recall the years of the Second World War, during which she sang with a dance band in a lounge in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He tells too of his father, Lewis, a soldier in the war who one night saw the “resplendently sequined” Leanne step onstage and began at that instant to plot his courtship of her.
 
But mostly what Will summons up in his intimate remembrance are those few catastrophic days in early June when he was “three months shy of twelve,” more than a decade after his parents have married and returned to the Vaughns’ home place, where Lewis farms his family’s land. For it is during those days that Leanne’s affair with a local man named Bobby Markum becomes known—first to Lewis and then, in a fiercely dramatic public confrontation, to young Will, to his beloved Grandmother Vaughn, and by nightfall to all the citizens of the town. The knowledge of such scandal, in so small a place, sets off a series of highly charged reactions, vivid consequences that surely determine the fates of every member of this unforgettable family.
 
A tale of memory and hero worship and the restless pulse of longing, The Book of Famous Iowans examines those forces that define not only a state made up of a physical geography, but more important, those states of the wholly human spirit.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Douglas Bauer renders his Midwestern place with delving care, turning the circumstance of soil and weather into something deep and animate. Through one long moody summer a complex play of fates unfolds. The atmosphere grows electric as the barometer keeps falling. The reader is drawn into the life of young Will Vaughn just as his world is about to come apart. Here is the true grain of American life, pathos but also comedy and stoicism. The Book of Famous Iowans belongs on the shelf right beside the best of Larry Woiwode and William Maxwell.”—Sven Birkets

The Book of Famous Iowans is a perfect novel—beautifully written and emotionally compelling in a way that made me wish it would never end even as I raced to the next page. I don’t know when I have felt such love and compassion for a cast of characters. I already miss them, and will, I am sure, for a long time to come.”—Jill McCorkle

“You hear a tractor, you smell the ploughed earth, you see the gently rolling Iowa landscape, and most of all Doug Bauer’s dazzling prose makes you feel the sweetness of young Will Vaughn’s love for his beautiful, sparkling mother, a woman doomed to veer away from the people who love her best. The Book of Famous Iowans is a compelling story about the bonds between mother and son which will break your heart as you nod in recognition.”—Susan Cheever

“This book is like the best of Midwestern America—plain and rich without trying. Bauer tells what might have been a common story in other hands. What is uncommon is the utter devotion to the passion of a broken family—such concentration as Dostoyevsky would have admired.”—Barry Hannah

Douglas Unger
Moving and lyrical. . .
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Boredom, the boredom of a safe, predictable, stationary, domestic, churchgoing existence, is the foe with which the citizens of 1950s New Holland, Iowa, struggle. One of them, 10-year-old Will Vaughn, is watching his mother (once a nightclub singer on the dazzling stage of Cheyenne, Wyoming) struggle with boredom and lose. Bauer (Dexterity; The Very Air) succeeds in the difficult task of making readers sympathize with this woman and her descent into an adulterous affair with a local baseball star. But he fails to lift the novel above the familiar devices and cliches of its genre, the coming-of-age story. Young Will's trudging trek from innocence to experience approaches self-parody when his wise old grandma initiates him into the Old Yeller-esque mysteries of manhood by teaching him to slaughter a chicken. Bauer meticulously recreates the atmosphere of a small Midwestern farm town in the 1950s, down to Will's boyish obsession with the wrestler Vern Gagne, but ultimately Will's character remains too relentlessly wide-eyed and simple to be compelling. His Oedipal passion for his beautiful mother and the occasional flash-forward to the events of Will's adult life provide a welcome but all-too-infrequent respite.
Library Journal
In this third novel from the author of The Very Air), journalist Will Vaughn weaves together memories from the summer of 1957, when his mother had an affair that scandalized their rural Iowan community and served as a catalyst for her leaving the family. Bauer's use of Will as the storyteller is both the book's strength and its weakness. While effectively capturing Will's confusion and at times his pain, the first-person narrative weakens the novel, as adult conversations and actions are either recreated or imagined by Will. Consequently, the motives and actions of his parents are not fully developed, and the novel's adults are more caricatures than characters. It's too bad, for the book has the elements of a good story, but they simply fail to come together compellingly. -- Caroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian College, Sudbury, Ontario
Library Journal
In this third novel from the author of The Very Air), journalist Will Vaughn weaves together memories from the summer of 1957, when his mother had an affair that scandalized their rural Iowan community and served as a catalyst for her leaving the family. Bauer's use of Will as the storyteller is both the book's strength and its weakness. While effectively capturing Will's confusion and at times his pain, the first-person narrative weakens the novel, as adult conversations and actions are either recreated or imagined by Will. Consequently, the motives and actions of his parents are not fully developed, and the novel's adults are more caricatures than characters. It's too bad, for the book has the elements of a good story, but they simply fail to come together compellingly. -- Caroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian College, Sudbury, Ontario
Douglas Unger
Moving and lyrical. . . -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Young novelist Bauer (The Very Air; Dexterity) offers, for our third helping, a rural coming-of-age tale that could hardly taste more overcooked had it been left on the stove all night. Its Writers' Workshop notwithstanding, Iowa is not the usual destination of choice for the young and the ambitious. So when LeAnne Vaughn's husband Lewis takes her back to his family's farm in New Holland, she has to take her time adjusting. LeAnne was a small-town singer who grew up in Wyoming with big things on her mind—until she met Lewis in the bar in Cheyenne where she sang. At the time, he had been in the Army, and the world seemed filled with possibilities to both of them. After Lewis' father is killed in a tractor accident, he decides to take over the family farm—a fatal error, as it turns out. Leanne's son Will narrates the story, many years after the incidents in question, mingling recollections of his own sad life with incidents from his mother's. He explains how the free-spirited Leanne discovers too late that the prairie village of New Holland is inhabited mainly by staunch churchgoing farmers who rarely sing and never dance or smoke at all. The only roguish figure in town is Bobby Markum, pitcher for the local baseball club, and LeAnne takes to him like a drowning swimmer to a life preserver. Bobby and LeAnne manage to be discreet for a while, but eventually everyone knows. The inevitable catastrophes ensue. Bauer succeeds in portraying the inner lives of his characters with extraordinary clarity and precision, but he somehow fails to extract much genuine drama out of such evidently dramatic scenarios. His overwrought prose doesn't help. And the narrative device ofconcentrating largely on events that took place during one brief period of Will's youth gives a more maudlin than mature air to the proceedings. Precious and overdone.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781609382667
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2014
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author


Douglas Bauer is the author of several books, including What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death (Iowa, 2013), Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home (Iowa, 2008), The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft, and three novels, Dexterity, The Very Air, and The Book of Famous Iowans. His edited works include Death by Pad Thai and Other Unforgettable Meals and Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows. He lives in Boston and teaches literature at Bennington College.
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First Chapter

1

I have kept three photographs or my mother, Leanne McQueen Vaughn, and anybody who sees one of them invariably asks me who the beautiful young woman in the picture is. No one recognizes a trace of her in me, since I grew, against her certain prediction, to resemble my father. I have his fair coloring; his stocky build; his wide, square face.

It would be easy to think that the photos had been taken, not over a decade, but within a span of a few weeks. For her face in the first, when she was fifteen, appears remarkably the same as in the last, that of a woman whose sophisticated beauty has matured just moments before the picture was snapped. Her expression, too, is closely repeated and seems to me one of cool epiphany. It's conveyed by a watchful gleam in her eyes and in the way she holds her head, gracefully extending her neck so that she looks to be peering out over the heads of a crowd. I know well how it felt to be within its range (and it often felt powerfully confidential and secure). But thinking now of her actions, the choices she made, and how they permanently changed us all, I see her expression as suggesting that she has raised her eyes to look past the distractions of hope and innocence, in order to see what she needed to see.

The first picture shows her standing with her aunt, Marla Jo McQueen, in the backyard of their apartment at 2008 Van Lennen Street in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The year is 1940. The yard looks to be a tiny plot, a forlorn stand of scrubby vegetation bent and leafless against a length of cross-lathed wooden fence. Marla Jo, who raised my mother from the age of ten, is wearing her cafe waitress uniform. My mother's light wool dress is belted at the waist and a row of buttons runs from its neck to its hem. She and her aunt are standing erect with their arms around each other's waists, and their resemblance is unsettling. Both of them have the tall, thin bodies, long necks, and sharp features apparently characteristic of the McQueens. But Marla Jo is a plain, homely woman, her thinness bony and awkward; her long neck disproportionate; her sharply pointed nose warring as a hawk's. In my mother, these same qualities are softened in an utterly feminine way.

She's twenty years old in the second photo, leaning against a 1940 Chevrolet, wearing a loose, floral-patterned short-sleeved dress. Two suitcases stand next to her. The look of the trees behind her and the season of her dress and the Chevrolet make it certain that the time is early spring, and, seeing the suitcases, I assume this to be the very moment of my parents' departure from Cheyenne for Iowa: the Chevrolet weighted down, the punitively barren breadth of Nebraska awaiting them. If so, her look of questing poise is especially impressive here. For she surely knew at least the essence of what awaited her once the secret in this photo--that her pregnancy was "early," as the term of the times politely spoke of it--was revealed to the eight hundred people of New Holland, my father's hometown, where he was taking her to begin their married life.

In the last of the three pictures, she and I are sitting on the back steps of the farmhouse porch in fading summer sunlight. I'm five or six, hinge-boned as a foal. With her arm around me, she's looking into the camera, the young mother in a light cotton dress, and the nature of her beauty appears so apart from her surroundings as to make her presence in the photo inapt. It's as though someone had posed a fashion model of the era with some gangly child, the two of them improbably plunked down on a sagging wooden stoop in the middle of the prairie.

2

The tractor I drove when I helped my father farm was the same one that killed my grandfather Vaughn. It was a lumbering burnt-red Case, massive as a house within my child's sense of scale and more than a decade old when I began to use it. In order to reach its seat I had to step from the ground to its wagon hitch, then pause to plan my footholds like a climber on a rock face before swinging myself up into place.

I operated the tractor with three simple levers: the first moved in a left-to-right arc and governed the speed, just below it was the gear shift; the third, a hand clutch on my right, sprouted vertically from the innards of the Case. This clutch, as I employed it, was the tractor's vital instrument. Throwing it all the way forward locked it in place, taking the Case out of gear and bringing it to a halt. Conversely, pulling the clutch back toward me caused the tractor to ease into action with the unexcitable obedience of an ancient dray horse.

From the high seat of the Case, I, not yet a teenager, blithely navigated my father's fields while my mind left the task and drifted off into dreams. As I drove I might pretend that I was once again steering my way to victory in the International Speed Disking Championships, a tightly contested competition as I imagined it, held each year in one of our loamy and ideally gradient fields. As the name makes clear, it drew talented young farmers from many countries, but my strongest rival was a fellow Iowan named Telfer, a relentless contestant, alas, forever doomed to be judged the world's second-fastest disker.

At other times, when I should have been paying close attention to whatever implement I was pulling--to the depth at which the disk's blades were working, to the precision of the path I was drawing with a harrow--I might instead be singing happily above the engine noise, making up lyrics or rehearsing other songs I'd perform later that day on my nationally televised Will Vaughn Show, a popular hour of music and guests which, in one of my more embellished fantasies, was shot in various locations around our farm, the show's informal tone modeled after that of Perry Como's.

I paid close attention to Como's television style, for he was a favorite of both my mother and my widowed grandmother, Dorothy Vaughn, who lived with us in an upstairs apartment of the huge and eccentrically gabled old house she'd shared with her husband.

Neither my mother nor my grandmother thought much of Perry Como's voice but they enjoyed his casual and self-mocking manner. In my mother's case, there was an ingredient of the professional's empathy in her interest. For she herself had been a nightclub singer, a seventeen-year-old girl whose sophisticated beauty had let her lie about her age in order to perform at the Valencia Lounge in Cheyenne.

As she watched Perry Como forget a line, then laugh and ask the orchestra to start the song again, my mother would smile and shake her head and say, "He fumbles the words and just makes it part of the act." She was a student in general of the styles of popular singers and television hostesses. She especially scrutinized their entrances. "Hurry smoothly" was the ultimate refinement of her theory and her frequent advice to me when she served as the studio audience at the Will Vaughn Show.

My grandmother's way of admiring Como was to say that he wasn't "trying to act like a big shot." This was the most damning charge she could think to bring against someone, and, as it happened, she thought to bring it frequently. As my grandmother viewed life, it required you to strive for distinction beyond your Iowa circumstances, then offer something close to regret and apology if you should happen to achieve it. For her, ambition was a measure of vision and resolve, while riding it successfully made you deeply suspect. She held this perception all her life, apparently blind to its essential contradiction. Especially, as I said, she tracked the lives of famous Iowans and had even at some point begun to keep a scrapbook which she filled with clippings from papers and magazines. This was her evolving record of local celebrities and how they'd distinguished our state with their humility or caused it embarrassment by trying to be a big shot.

As a boy, I naturally thought nothing of the fact that I, the only child of a grain farmer, would have my early notions shaped less by him than by these two strong women, both fantasists, who paid a great deal of attention to the idea of--what?--well, of fame, I suppose. For in their separate ways, each obsessively considered what fame was and how it should behave, watching those who had it and whether they carried it with prideful inelegance or diffidence or style.

I'm sure, in contrast, I sensed my father's world, his work, to be one of narrow and local ritual, an infinitely literal life that was not what my mother, or my grandmother either, hinted to me was the life of notice; one that was elsewhere; one that was away. Now, forty years later, I wonder at times what I didn't wonder then: how a man on a tractor is able to engage the unaltering earth as it passes beneath his wheels. Whether he must be able to imagine nothing. Or, rather, to imagine everything. And when I ask myself this, I can only say it seems that a farmer at his task must inhabit one of these states of mind or the other. Which one, I don't know, although it seems to me they would be equally impossible to achieve.

Still, thinking back on those days, I see myself atop the Case, a boy and dreaming-ignorant, happy to be mimicking my father's work. I hear the boom of the tractor's engine on ignition. I feel the waking tug of its hibernative strength. And I'm sure I recall these features so well because some part of me was vividly fixed as I drove on knowing, as I said, it was the tractor that killed my grandfather.

The Iowa winter of 1945 began in late November with its usual ferocity. In New Holland, there was a Thanksgiving blizzard and another in December, glazing a surface of snow that, it seemed, would be the season's lasting coat. But early in February the cold suddenly broke and days of blessed weather followed one after another. The temperature reached sixty, then seventy degrees, the air as benign as the soft heat of June. The snow melted quickly and the ice broke on the rivers and the rivers spilled out over the silty bottom land. For more than three weeks, the warmth was unremitting, a torrential storm of ideal sun, and people tried to recall a comparable time.

My grandfather, Henry Vaughn, had observed the first week of heat with a farmer's avid interest in weather, any weather. But he was an energetic man and, with no necessary chores, his fields gleaned and at rest, he began to suffer through the second week. Increasingly he paced. After feeding his chickens, his only livestock at the time, he hurried to the barn and looked around in vain and returned, forlorn and taskless, to the house.

Then the third week began and by that time it must have felt to my grandfather as if the weather were mocking him. On Wednesday morning of that week, leaving my grandmother sleeping, he rose as always to supervise the daybreak and walked out to the porch to drink his first cup of coffee. As he sat there the dawn's warmth reached him and he saw the sun glinting off the ponds of melted snow that now covered the acreage. Everywhere he looked there was mud, like troweled manure.

What happened next has been deduced and refined to the family's official account of that morning. At some point he got up and pulled on his boots and left the porch and walked through puddles toward the shed where all his machinery was kept through the winter. Inside, he climbed up into the seat of the burnt-red Case, which he'd purchased at the end of the previous season. He set its levers and climbed down, slid the crank in and turned it through many tries until the engine sparked. He let it idle for a bit, winter leaving it in gasps and shudders, then scampered around and remounted and backed the Case out into the morning light.

He'd driven no more than twenty feet into the barnyard when the tractor sank in mud. Again he jumped down, hurried to a nearby woodpile, and brought back some pieces of old barn siding. Believing he had a better chance of backing up than moving forward, he wedged the boards as far beneath the tires as possible.

And then he let impatience have him. Still standing just behind the Case, he reached up until he grasped the hand clutch, then drew it partially back, letting the tractor creep slowly in reverse. In this way he could keep the boards in place while the tractor traversed them; he could do two things at once. And when one of the boards slid from underneath a tire, he reached with his foot to kick it back into alignment and slipped in the mud and fell beneath the wheels. In falling, he instinctively held the clutch for support, which locked the Case in gear, and it continued back, rolling effortlessly up and over him, the right rear tire responding to the sudden traction of his body and gaining speed as it crushed his thigh and his pelvis and his chest, before his head, and his arms, which he'd thrown up to protect himself, freakishly provided enough resistance. The Case came to a stop and its cold engine died.

When my grandmother discovered him an hour later, she refused to make sense of what she saw. Her thought was that he'd grown so desperate in his boredom that he'd staged this elaborate and dangerous hoax. From twenty feet away, she called to him. Her voice was frightened and shrilly reproachful; she was appalled by the lengths to which he'd gone to play this joke--lying in the mud, filthy with its spatters, theatrically sprawled against the wheel of a tractor.

Reaching him then and bending down to meet his opened eyes, she read his expression as one of embarrassment. There was no indication on his face of any pain and he looked as though he were about to speak, expressing apology for his own foolishness. He appeared so at ease that she may have even waited to hear him admit the desperation of his prank. Then, finally recognizing the path the wheel had taken, she asked herself how she could get her husband free without causing him any further injury. She looked down at him and said, "This isn't funny, Hal. Help me here. Tell me what to do." All the while the tractor waited like an incurious horse standing over its thrown rider.

No amount of speculation could answer what my grandfather had had in mind that morning. Why he'd started the Case and backed it out of the shed. What task he might have possibly thought he could get done with the spring mud laking everywhere.

What my grandmother always said, in answer to the mystery, was something beautifully uncomplicated. She believed that the considerable part of my grandfather's personality that was forever a boy's had simply surrendered to the perfection of the day and he'd decided to take his new tractor for a drive.

My father, Lewis Vaughn, was drafted two weeks to the day after he'd turned twenty-one. He was sent from New Holland to basic training in Des Moines and then to Fort Francis E. Warren outside Cheyenne. There, as a mechanic, he fit 50-caliber Browning machine guns into the turrets of B17 Flying Fortresses. And it was there that he met and fell in love with Leanne McQueen, the beautiful young singer at the Valencia Lounge, a bar popular with soldiers. When, after two years of courtship, they learned Leanne was pregnant, they married and moved into a first-floor room on Evans Avenue, in the shadow of the state capitol building. My mother had just turned twenty.

On February 25, 1945, my father was fetally curled in the swinging seat of a ball turret, testing the smoothness and extension of its turns, when he was summoned to his captain's office and given word of his father's death.

Numb and frantic after receiving the news, he caught a base bus back into Cheyenne and ran home to his and my mother's new apartment, where she was getting ready to go to work at the Valencia. After much discussion that night and the next day, and against her wishes to be with him, he decided to return alone to New Holland. Perhaps he was thinking that he couldn't know for sure how long he'd have to stay. And maybe he felt too that the surprise of their marriage and the revelation of his new wife's pregnancy might create a social awkwardness that would be unfair to his mother; that her only concern should be to host and to exemplify the mourning.

My father spent two days in New Holland, presiding over the funeral and assisting his mother in all her legal matters. When he returned to Cheyenne he somehow found the words to tell my mother that he'd been made to realize he had no option but to accept an early discharge. They'd be going back to Iowa, to the farm outside New Holland, and that was where they would take up their new life.

I've often wondered whether that decision would have held if my mother had gone with him to New Holland for the funeral, where she'd have at least glimpsed a place where all but a few families--my father's among them--followed the tenets of the Dutch Christian Reformed Church, a congregation which did not permit drinking or smoking or any games of cards or chance, did not allow its members to go to movies or watch television shows or attend dances.

If she had stepped into that world of powerful austerity, if she'd glimpsed enough to sense the life of the farm, seen the fertile distances and heard the earth's keen silence, might she have feared that it was not a place where they could dream the dreams my father had said they would be dreaming? Or was she too young, at twenty, or too used to adventure, so that everything and every place looked only to hold more?

However resistant she was, however accepting, when she heard where she'd be living she consulted a map. My mother had not been east of Wyoming and she brought a western sensibility to the notion of geography. She'd assumed, having heard my father speak of the great dissimilarities between Cheyenne and New Holland, that most of America lay between the two places. But looking at the map for the first time, she saw that only one state, Nebraska, separated them and decided that Iowa could not be so different from Wyoming.

Next she noticed that the mere stretch of Illinois--its northern breadth on the map cinched like a corseted waist--was all that lay between her new home and Chicago, where the country's most famous dance bands played in the ballroom atop the Edgewater Beach Hotel. All in all, it appeared to her that these new distances were no greater than those that westerners were used to traveling; no greater than a span of Colorado, a length of Utah. So she grew excited at the idea of driving regularly to Chicago to listen to the bands at the Edgewater Beach. And she thought, perhaps, as their fortunes improved, she and my father could keep a small apartment there and travel freely back and forth.

More than once I heard her describe her skewed anticipation of what life was going to be in Iowa; how she'd gone to the map and had taken note of the easy-seeming distances. And it occurs that, like me atop the massive Case, she was then already using the plain plot of the farm as the world from which to launch her daydreams of escape.

When she spoke of that time, as they prepared to leave Cheyenne, she usually added that she suspected her fantasies were in part a rallying reaction to my father's disappointment. She said their life's sudden turn had made him so unhappy that she'd wanted to provide the light and hope for both of them. And it's true, as I remember, that there was always amusement in her voice when she talked about her expectations of their coming to New Holland, asking her listener to agree with her that no one had ever been quite so naive.

She especially favored the word naive, which she always mispronounced, with loving emphasis, "nah-ehv," as if to make it clear that though she'd ended up in Iowa she certainly recognized and could pronounce a word from French.

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