Jesse Ventura
Jesse Ventura; drawing by David Levine

In Aristophanes’ Birds, Herakles with his club makes an improbable member of the diplomatic corps sent down from Olympos:

Poseidon: We two will ring in peace, next, with the birds.

Herakles: I’ll wring peace from their necks with my two hands.

The Herakles in a 1975 production of Birds by the North Hennepin Community College players was Jim Janos, freshman drama student, part-time bouncer in a local bar, and aspiring professional wrestler (he had just taken the fighting name “Surfer Jesse Ventura”). Odd as was his appearance in an ancient Greek drama, nothing can match the deep implausibility of Ventura’s current role, as the action-figure-toy governor of Minnesota. After his one year in college, he had gone on to wrestle under the name “Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura,” appeared as a bulky adjutant to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, hosted radio talk shows high on insult and low on inhibitions, and served as the maverick mayor (1991-1995) of Brooklyn Park, the same Minneapolis suburb where he had appeared as Herakles two decades earlier.

Though he slipped into office early this year with only 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race, he quickly became the feel-good governor who makes Minnesotans enjoy their own previously unsuspected drollery. The state, after all, is one that Garrison Keillor introduced us to, long ago, as a land of Scandinavian silences, of buried Lutheran guilt—“a state of folks in earth tones,” as he puts it in his new book. Then along came Jesse, like a technicolor Bozo the Clown popping up in the black-and-white gloom of an Ingmar Bergman movie. Now even Keillor wonders at the way Ventura has gathered a good staff and conducted a successful legislative session. The only people unhappy with him at the moment are the more ideological Republicans. “He has knocked the struts out from under the religious right,” Keillor says.

It was not always so between Ventura and Keillor. When Time asked Keillor to comment on the surprise victory of the flamboyant wrestler, whose ring attire ran to rhinestones and feather boa, Keillor, who has never met the man, mused that this was like a corporation’s taking the office janitor and making him CEO. Ventura, whose fighting persona was based on showily staged enmities, had an aide invite Keillor to attend the governor’s inaugural ball in a janitor’s costume. The exchange of further insults led Garry Trudeau to run the feud in his “Doonesbury” comic strip. Keillor, whose agent had suggested a political satire as his next book, wrote a mad nightmare vision of a Ventura simulacrum (Jimmy “Big Boy” Valente) spiraling crazily up to the presidency by the year 2000.

Minnesotans’ laughter has by now become good-natured and self-celebratory. Even the man’s gaffes have become endearing. When his own book revealed that he does not wear underwear, Fruit of the Loom sent him twelve thousand pairs of undershorts. He donated them to two charities, which thanked him profusely, since that is just what their beneficiaries need—others leave them old coats and dresses, but who donates their cast-off underwear? Even boorishness, in the alchemy of this moment, became a benefaction. The citizens of Minnesota treat Ventura as a sly practical joke they are playing on themselves.

On June 15, I went to a Girls State assembly in St. Paul where Ventura was scheduled to address the young delegates in their mock political convention. The woman in charge at the dais admonished the four hundred high school juniors: “When he enters you must show Jesse respect, since he has not always…” She trailed off with a nervous laugh, unable to put tactfully whatever she meant to say—that he had not been treated with respect, or that he had not shown dignity himself? It was significant that, even in this call for formality, she called the governor “Jesse.” He has refused to answer questions from some journalists who address him with first-name familiarity, demanding respect for his office. Still, it is hard to be solemn with a man who, the day after he won office, said on the radio that one of his detractors should take his criticism and put it “where the sun don’t shine.” Even at this high school meeting, he will provoke titters when he reflects on the fact that it is the class of 2000 before him and he is getting so old that his own high school class is having its thirtieth reunion. After hailing “the Class of Zero Zero,” he mutters in an aside, “Jesus!”

When Ventura came into the gymnasium of Bethel College, where the Girls State delegates had just finished their voting, he was greeted with a writhe of adolescent rapture. Ventura, generally popular, is most popular with young audiences, which he seeks out. An organizer of Girls State said this was the first time in years that a governor had shown up for their event. Journalists who follow him say that their own children beg for information about him, buy his action-figure toys, and do not like it when their elders are dismissive of him.


Nor is this reaction confined to adolescents. In the election, he won 46 percent of the eighteen to twenty-nine age group—as opposed to 16 percent for the Republican, Norm Coleman, and 37 percent for the Democrat-Farm-Labor (DFL) candidate, Skip Humphrey (Hubert Humphrey III).1 Much of this edge came from new participants—16 percent of those voting registered on election day, a thing made possible by Minnesota’s encouragement of minor parties. Ventura, running on the Reform Party ticket, got three quarters of that 16 percent, in a turnout (60 percent of the voting populace) unusual for an off-year election, especially in a year when disgust with politics ran high because of Monica madness in Washington. Ventura, for all his flamboyance, and despite his boasts of womanizing as a youth, has a reputation as a solid family man, devoted to his wife and two children. As he told Jay Leno after the election, “Have you seen my wife? I don’t need to look for an intern.”

Ventura’s candor—his air of being too inexperienced at politics to lie—threw him into the greatest imaginable contrast with the soiled or seedy politicians chasing or running from scandal. That is why Ventura, who made a populist appeal, was not elected with the edge of bitterness that is manifest in many populist campaigns. The voters were not particularly angry—Minnesota has been spectacularly prosperous in recent years, and Ventura won marginally more votes from those making $50,000 to $74,000 a year than from those making less than $16,000. He lost the vote of those with less than a high school education (prime material for populism of the resentful sort), but he led the other two candidates in the 89 percent of the voters who thought the state’s economic condition was good to excellent. In fact the state seems to have felt it could take a gamble on this attractive outsider precisely because things were going so well—it was unlikely he could contrive a disaster. He had earlier been helped in his election as a colorful mayor for suburban Brooklyn Park because people reflected that he could not do much damage in a strong-council/ weak-mayor city where his vote was just one of seven members on any major issue.

Even so, few suspected Ventura might win this race until its very end—and that misperception was one of the causes of his victory. Humphrey, confident that Ventura could not take the main prize, felt Ventura would draw more from the right than from the left, so he made a point of saying that Ventura should be included in the televised candidate debates (though the League of Women Voters was going to include him anyway). In fact, Ventura won more liberal votes than Humphrey (4 percent more), while losing the conservative vote by a whopping 19 percent to Coleman. Ventura made deep inroads into the DFL base, taking away a third of the party’s voters, splitting the women’s vote with Humphrey, and leading him 37 to 26 percent among college graduates. This was no victory of hicks. Women liked Ventura’s stands favoring abortion and gay rights. The wrestler’s macho rhetoric and Rush Limbaugh growls have misled out-of-staters into thinking of Ventura as a stirrer of right-wing discontent. Minnesota’s perception was more accurate—and that is why Coleman won an absolute majority (58 percent) of the conservative vote, the highest figure run up in any category of this three-way race.

At a time when George W. Bush is trying to temper his party’s right-wing drift by presenting himself as a soft (“compassionate”) conservative, Ventura has performed an opposite trick, coming before the people as a hard and tough liberal. If he hugged a tree, he would kill it. He probably does not even know what tofu is. He drives a Porsche, not a Saab. And his favorite book (“I read it seven times”) is the story of the Manson Family murders, Helter Skelter. That is why he can get away with things that would make people wince if they came from “sensitive” liberal stereotypes like Alan Alda or Phil Donahue. During the debates, when the candidates were asked about a recently passed Minnesota law banning gay marriage, Coleman supported the law aggressively, Humphrey opposed it timorously, but Ventura said:

I have two friends that have been together forty-one years. If one of them becomes sick, the other one is not even allowed to be at the bedside. I don’t believe government should be so hostile, so mean-spirited…. Love is bigger than government.

Gays like Ventura, and pass around a story about Ventura’s response to Trent Lott’s claim that sexual lifestyle is a matter of choice, not biology. He is supposed to have asked Lott, “When did you make your choice?” On his radio show, which careened recklessly around many subjects, he refused to discuss the death of TV comedian Phil Hartmann since he had met the man and he was too distressed to consider whether he had committed suicide or been murdered. Sensitivity is the last thing one expects in a body-slammer.


Though he likes to say that he is a centrist, on a whole series of hot-button issues, Ventura is a liberal: abortion, gay rights, women in the military, legalizing marijuana, legalizing prostitution, opposition to capital punishment, to school vouchers, to school prayer, and to display of the Ten Commandments. He praises the liberating Sixties, opposes laws against burning the flag, loves rock and roll, and condemns the Vietnam War. He opposed Bush’s war with Iraq, though he went, as a supporter of servicemen, to see the Minnesota troops off for their desert duty. Even on gun control, though Ventura loves his own automatic rifle and has threatened noisy partyers with it, he supports background checks before firearm sales, and says that all gun purchasers should receive mandatory training (an expensive and time-consuming process that would drastically slow gun sales). From those wanting permits to carry concealed guns he would even require periodic retesting. The Republican state convention that was held after this year’s legislative session became a marathon exercise in Ventura-bashing. The new chairman of the party called the governor “Roger Moe [the DFL Senate leader] on steroids.”

Though he sometimes reverts to his campaign rhetoric against both parties, he worked well with the DFL in the first session, and saves his scorn for Republicans. I asked him, in his office, why he thought the DFL was so cooperative. Because they can read the polls, he said; they saw they got beat in this election, and they have to go where the voters are. Then why haven’t the Republicans responded in the same way? “They tend to be very bullheaded and noninclusive. You could see that in their treatment of the Lewinsky scandal. They actually made the president more popular by making him the underdog. Yeah, he [Clinton] made a mistake, but they were like grinding his face in it. They tend to be vindictive that way.”

One might have expected that Ventura—who engages in some anti-intellectual chest-thumping—would find it hard to assemble a good set of appointees. Why would respected people commit themselves to a flake? But the perception of Ventura as basically a populist in a state known for its liberal tradition made policy advisers welcome his invitation to join him. Jim Ragsdale, the Pioneer Press journalist who has covered the Ventura administration, had just finished a round of interviews with his cabinet and staff when I arrived in St. Paul. He was impressed by their quality. Tim Penny, a former state congressman, had put Ventura in touch with a wide range of candidates. “They are actually heavy on wonks and academic experts,” Ragsdale says. Former state senator Ted Mondale (Walter’s son) holds an important post as chairman of the Metropolitan Council.

Ventura created good will in his administration by visiting every department, asking what function each performs, and promising his support. Staff was promised a high degree of responsibility—which fits Ventura’s temperament. He is restless with details, was known for absenteeism during his time as mayor, and spent much of his first legislative session writing and promoting his book. His sudden popularity on talk shows all over the nation takes him out of the state a good deal.

Though Ventura claims, like some other politicians, to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, the Republicans have been no happier with his economic decisions than with his social rhetoric. (Minnesota, after all, is not going to legalize prostitution—his threat here is mainly symbolic.) The first legislative session’s main “problem” was what to do with the state’s tax surplus and the money won in Attorney General Skip Humphrey’s suit against the tobacco companies. Everyone favored a tax rebate, but Ventura arguing for skewing it downward to people with less money. The Republicans wanted to add the tobacco money to the rebate—“just give all the money back,” as Ventura puts it—while some Democrats favored using it on ad campaigns against smoking. Ventura scoffed at the last idea (“What idiot does not know smoking is harmful?”), even though he had appeared as an athlete against smoking in earlier advertisements. He went with advisers who recommended putting the money in endowments and drawing on the profits for emergency needs and for basic medical research.

Despite his record so far, some people continue to misinterpret Ventura’s victory. Part of this comes from a gimmicky approach that plays up “wrestler chic,” explaining him by the current popularity of that sport (seven of the top ten cable shows on TV are wrestling programs). The truly awful NBC docudrama The Jesse Ventura Story spent much of its budget on the show-biz aspects of wrestling, and kept injecting symbolic wrestling scenes to “explain” Ventura’s later conflicts with business and political opponents. In this show, the debates with Humphrey and Coleman faded off into scenes of Jesse in the ring battling two little opponents. The network wanted wrestling all the way through the story, though Ventura spent only nine of his forty-eight years on his wrestling career, and that ended fifteen years ago. He has devoted more of his life (eleven years) to being a radio commentator than to wrestling.

A deeper misconception is embodied in things like Neal Gabler’s recent article on what he claims is the political significance of wrestling in our time.2 Gabler thinks that Minnesotans have realized that “wrestling and politics are both ways to express anger and disaffection.” But the mood of the electorate was far from that of a fight crowd last fall, and Jesse’s support among women is at odds with the small number of women who care about wrestling. Besides, the current “sport” Gabler describes is light years away from the kind of wrestling Ventura did. The Jerry-Springerization of cable-TV wrestling has created a kind of scumbag chic, with a frisson of sex and nihilism.3 Ventura came from more innocent days—in fact, his career as a radio commentator on the sport faltered because he could not keep up with the changes in wrestling. The hero modeled on Ventura in Garrison Keillor’s novel, Jimmy Valente, fights on into the super-production armageddons of our time—the bouts escalate to the point where Valente is calling in “sweat-seeking” cruise missiles on his opponent.

There is still a macho side to Ventura—who has, after all, capitalized on his wrestling image, anachronistic as it is. But now he is polite enough to back off when that is not working. At Girls State, one of the questioners complained that she wants to wrestle, though girls are not allowed on the team at her school. Ventura began by defending the school. “Let’s flip that over. My son is six foot four and a very good volleyball player, and yet there isn’t boys’ volleyball, is there? So he’s not allowed to play with the girls team. We’ve got it floating both ways, don’t we? Should a boy be allowed to play on the girls’ team?” He was taken aback by the emphatic Yes shouted from the floor. “Even though he’d dominate, maybe?” Surprised again by boos mixed with nos, this “non-politician” began to coo platitudes about finding some fair and equitable compromise, telling the girl she should go out and win her medal.

Sometimes his efforts to back off can become torturous, as in his revised version of why he wrote his book, I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed. He tells stories there—obviously polished over the years playing to audiences of admiring buddies—of his early sexual prowess and his annual binge-drinking forays with friends into the Minnesota forest (he regaled a radio audience with the tale of the group’s drunkenly running over one of their own pals on such an outing). Surprised that the stories did not work as well in a book issued from the governor’s office, he has invented a high-minded reason for the revelations. They are supposed to demonstrate the “high-pocrisy” (as he calls it) of the rules he grew up under, by which he was able to become a Navy SEAL at eighteen though he could not legally (at that time) vote or get a drink. He explains to the Girls Staters how young people suffered “child abuse” if they were not adults when they were drafted, or treatment as children if they were deprived of beer or the ballot till they were twenty-one. “And we haven’t learned a thing,” he tells the girls. “My son had to register for the draft at eighteen, though some people say no one should own guns till they are twenty-one. Good idea? Maybe. But shouldn’t there be some consistency?”

A questioner from the floor asked what he thinks the draft age should be. “Pick a number,” he replies. He does not care when the time of legal adulthood is fixed, so long as it is the same across the board. That would call for federal imposition of regulations to achieve consistency in all the states on a synchronized drinking, voting, and drafting age—though Ventura likes to talk against federal intervention in state business. Besides, all this has nothing, really, to do with his book’s stories about illegal drinking or his sixteen-year-old bet with friends to see who could lose his virginity first. (Would he have held off till twenty-one if that was the “consistent” date for adult roles?) He tells us he wanted to make the deflowering event “special,” so he did not use the back of a car. He took the girl to his friend’s house and used his bed—though it is questionable how much the girl involved prized this gallantry, since he tells us he had nothing to do with her after that.

Ventura can be vociferous in defense of simplisms and irrelevancies. For those who said he was unqualified to be governor, he developed a line of patter that said the only thing that makes one qualified is the state requirement that one be twenty-five years old and a Minnesota resident for at least a year. When it is objected that a legal requirement is not the same as a qualification (one can meet the legal requirements for a driver’s license yet be unqualified because of recklessness), he says that requirement and qualification mean exactly the same thing, and have to since the Founding Fathers (who now get credit for Minnesota’s election laws) intended for everybody to have a turn at governing.

Ventura has his own screwy constitutional history on gun laws. Gun registration, he believes, would enslave us. Then why has not automobile registration done so? The tape shows him groping for an answer, though he must have heard this objection before: “Because we are not going to—cars are not going to—uh, uh, cars don’t have—there’s nothing in the amendments to the Constitution dealing with cars…. The Second Amendment is written to protect citizens against oppressive government. We the citizentry [sic], I do believe this, have the right to form a militia.” I point out that a “well-regulated” militia is the term, and government—state or federal—does the regulating. “No, it does not. There’s no point in having guns if you just register them, because if government becomes aggressive or obsessive [sic] or starts to take control, they know who has the guns and can come get them.” When I try to argue that government regulated the militia, both under the Articles of Confederation and in the Constitution (Article II, Section 2, “The President of the United States shall be the commander in chief… of the militia of the several states when called into the service of the United States”), he just repeats, louder, his denials, and cuts off my attempts to finish a sentence.

The idea that the government is scheming to take away our freedom marks the point where Ventura links up with the loony right. There is a strong conspiratorial bent to his thinking. One of his favorite movies is Oliver Stone’s JFK—he watched it again while waiting for returns on election day (“entranced,” as he writes, “by Oliver Stone’s genius”). He feels that various people have plotted against him in the past, and that a horde of vultures is now poised to cut him out of profits made from his image. “They’re out to make money off my name,” he told me heatedly. “And they’re allowed to do it—that’s what bothers me, that they’re allowed to do it. Why, when you become a public person, do you automatically lose the rights that you have as a citizen? If a homeless person had done to them what I’ve had done to me, they’d become wealthy with lawsuits.” He is fighting the exploitation by others with preemptive exploitation of his own. He rushed his book into print, though he should have spent the early months of his administration learning about the government he runs, because he saw that another book was being written (by Jake Tapper) and he would get no money from it. He especially resented the fact that NBC’s docudrama was being filmed without his permission or profit.

When a sixty-three-year-old secretary at the Minnesota State Capitol made some Valentine’s Day cards with a caricature of Ventura in his wrestling gear, she received a legal threat saying that “Governor Ventura and his assigns… own the exclusive rights to use his name and likeness for commercial purposes.” The missive came from Ventura for Minnesota, Inc. (VMI), an organization set up “to protect the governor’s name.” Ventura had copyrighted the name “Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura” in 1992, to promote his wrestling career (which was long over by then), and VMI aggressively controls the fast market in licensing of action figures (they come in three varieties—Ventura as governor, as Navy SEAL, and as football coach). Though Ventura has attacked politicians who use their careers to enrich and promote themselves, he is challenging the free-market use of his name now that election has enhanced it. Some claim that this violates campaign contribution laws, since the sale of Ventura dolls, T-shirts, and other memorabilia promotes his career and—should he run again—would help his election effort, but the state’s five-member Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board (with two Ventura appointees already on it) has approved VMI’s activities.

Money is a great concern with Ventura. He groused that his salary as governor did not begin during the interim between election and inauguration, and that his wife has to perform duties at the mansion without pay. He assured the Girls State delegates that “wrestlers are not stupid. Most wrestlers pay income tax in six figures—how can they be stupid?” The thought of all that money in wrestling must haunt him. He has agreed to go back and referee a match on pay television for the World Wrestling Federation, from whose management he broke with great bitterness in the past. Though he makes much of giving $100,000 from this match to charity, he is likely to make much more from syndication and from what he calls “the licensed use of my name.” Some think his ambition knows no limits. They are wrong. Greed limits it.

Though he lives well, with a thirty-two-acre horse ranch, swimming pool, and Porsche, Ventura has had a precarious string of careers in which his popularity flared and then rapidly faded. He was dropped from all six of his radio shows (two announcing wrestling, two announcing football, and two open-line talk shows), and was unemployed for a year as recently as 1995-1996. Jake Tapper’s quickie book Body Slam is, expectedly, not long on analysis, but it does a good job at showing how tenuous has been Ventura’s hold on employment. Even Ventura joked to the delegate at Girls State who asked him about his future in politics that “I’ve never held a job for long, so I may not have a long future in politics.” He was not the great success as a wrestler that his own book claims. Tapper quotes knowledgeable critics who say his basic moves were poor. Keillor, who has studied the matter, told me, “He was not much good at picking people up and throwing them down, but he was a good stalker.” He sneered and jeered in the morality plays of his time, strutted and posed. But he was losing his appeal even before he was felled by a life-threatening embolism that ended his career.

In the movies, he began with an undistinguished, and brief, appearance in the Schwarzenegger film Predator (“People say I stole the film from Arnold,” he claims in his book), and went down from there—by his fifth film he was listed thirty-seventh in the credits. On the radio, he did not last. His repertoire of stock lines was funny the first few times, but it did not grow. The same thing is noticeable in his current overexposure on the talk shows and in his gubernatorial ad-libbings (he pointedly has not read from a text, even at his inauguration). When, after my own interview with him, I talked to Minnesota journalists, they would chime in with the rest of the sentence when I started to quote him.

There is a testiness and restlessness in him, too, that militates against the long haul. Some attribute this to the steroids he took when he was building his body. He is Jesse “The Twitch” Ventura. When I talked with him, he rocked his big governor’s chair back and forth, on the other side of his large desk, in a nervous rhythm through the entire interview.

It is more than premature, then, to talk—though many do—of Ventura as a presidential candidate. He basks in the idea, while reaffirming his commitment to serve out his four years as governor. The wild ego that Keillor gives his character, Jimmy Valente, is taken straight from the model. Ventura’s own book is childishly vain: “I was the greatest announcer wrestling’s ever had, but I ended up getting banned from both leagues. I’m too independent; I don’t kiss their asses.” He speaks repeatedly of a higher power guiding him: “Whatever force was at work that night at SEAL Cadre when I went over that dam and lived to tell about it was working its influence on my life again. Fate had other plans for me.” He piously demurs: “I hope I’m not destined to become president.” But who can fight destiny?

One of the many problems with any higher career for Ventura is the vehicle he has chosen to carry him there: Ross Perot’s Reform Party. That party gave him a big leg up in Minnesota. Not only had Perot himself won 24 percent of Minnesota’s presidential vote in 1992. In 1994 and 1996, the party’s candidate for Senate, Dean Barkley, went above 5 percent in the ballot—all that was needed to guarantee Ventura public funding and a place in the debates under Minnesota laws that encourage independent parties. But the Reform Party as a national proposition is another matter. Perot is not considered friendly to the rise of this rival for the party’s affections—he neither endorsed nor contributed to Ventura’s campaign last year, despite Ventura’s desperate need for money to run his effective last-minute ads (brilliantly conceived by Bill Hillsman, who became famous for his ads in Paul Wellstone’s Senate race of 1990). Ventura, while dutifully expressing gratitude to Perot for launching the party, now says he should “step aside,” and sent a letter to delegates for the July meeting of the Reform Party urging them to replace Perot loyalist Russell Verneyas party chairman. But the formidable hurdles to getting on the ballot in many states are hard to cross without Perot’s money.

Nonetheless, Ventura speaks about building the party’s national appeal. He would clearly like a strong candidate to surface this year, to bring the party closer to the strength it would need for him to win with it in 2004. He has frequently floated the idea of Colin Powell’s running—“for him I would break my promise [to serve in Minnesota for four years] and run as Vice President.” When Powell showed no interest, Ventura brought forward Lowell Weicker’s name as a candidate. (Weicker is better disposed to the idea than was Powell.) Meanwhile, others are eyeing the party as a vehicle. The very day I interviewed Ventura, Pat Buchanan showed up in his dreary round of quadrennial efforts at the presidency. He hoped that some Ventura luster (and Reform votes) would rub off on him. In a joint press conference after their long meeting, Buchanan was lavish in praise of “the governor,” but Ventura was vague and noncommittal about Buchanan: “He has had a bearing on our country, he makes people think Pat and I’ll agree that thinking is good.” It is a measure of Buchanan’s desperation that, after his attacks on George Bush for not opposing abortion fiercely enough, he should be here sucking up to a man who does not oppose it at all.

That Ventura should be playing with presidential politics at all is a sign of a colossal ego that only Garrison Keillor can do justice to. His Jimmy Valente is a great comic creation, which takes the odder traits of Ventura and careens with them off into a surreal world that gets crazier and crazier, much as Nathanael West pushed his premises in novels like The Dream Life of Balso Snell and Miss Lonelyhearts. Ventura is prouder of his passing the tough course of training that made him a Navy SEAL than of anything else in his life. He uses a SEAL cheer, “Hooyah!,” and when he is not saying that the only qualification needed for being governor is to meet the age and resident requirements, he says things like this:

It’s bugged me that there’s been so much discussion about whether or not I’m “up to the job.” They kept asking whether I could do it. I told them, “I’ve jumped out of thirty-four airplanes. I’ve dived two hundred feet under water. I’ve rappelled out of the hellholes of helicopters. I’ve done things that would make Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman wet their pants.”

Keillor’s Valente belonged to the Walruses, who bark each other into action. But the novel’s master touch is the creation of a bedeviling little foe who haunts Valente, souring each triumph. He picked up this phantom of self-doubt in Asia, and the Rodent (as he is known) speaks a jeering “Oriental” dialect that systematically reverses r and l—more systematically than any Japanese ever did, making his dialect a creation of the page as surely as any of Stephen Leacock’s fantastic languages were. Who, for instance, ever called a brother a “blothel”? That the “Lodent” is Valente’s blothel sums up their odd linked hostility and fate. As the Rodent tells him in his more grandiose aspirations after political power, “you lun, you rooze.” Keillor may turn out to be prescient, or prophetic. Jesse’s big enemy is not the government or the press or the cashers-in on his fame. It is the demon of paranoid suspicion and conspiratorial distrust that lurks in him. Jesse’s real enemy is Jesse.

This Issue

August 12, 1999