September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

by Elizabeth McCracken

Ah, life! This one belongs to Mose Sharp, an Iowa boy who breaks his shopkeeper father’s heart by taking the itinerant, exuberant path of a 1930s and ’40s vaudeville performer. He soars to success as straight man to the rotund, risible Rocky Carter, whom he loves like the brother he never had and the sister whose untimely death he blames himself for.

After years of escapades onstage and off (another opening, another showgirl), Mose marries well but faces tragedy as Rocky, a conniving careerist, runs through marriage after marriage. Life partner or work partner: Who is more important? Ultimately, that’s the question that rends this odd couple. Or maybe they just outgrow each other.

McCracken is a graceful writer, but this showbiz saga dwells too much on the details of Mose’s life and not enough on what’s happening inside his head. (Dial, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Mose grows, prose glows, plot slows

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