Does Garrison Keillor come out of literature or radio? He’s now filled at least five books—two of them very good books—with stories, monologues, vignettes, anecdotes, poems, letters, and snippets describing life in the small Minnesota town he calls Lake Wobegon. But a fair portion of this material was delivered live on the Satur-day night radio show A Prairie Home Companion, surely one of the enduring triumphs of public broadcasting. Here’s Mr. Keillor describing how that worked:
The last live show on June 13  was pretty typical. Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke played guitar, a Hawaiian school choir sang in Hawaiian, Jean Redpath sang and Stevie Beck played the Autoharp and I sang with Rich Dworsky’s Orchestra, Tom Keith and Kate Mackenzie starred in an episode of “Buster the Show Dog,” and Vern Sutton sang “Stars and Stripes Forever,” with the mighty white Wurlitzer played from the pit by Philip Brunelle as Tom made excellent rocket sounds and the audience clapped and at the climax Vern crashed a pair of cymbals—classic American entertainment, in other words—and in the third half hour I strolled out and told a story as per usual. I stood at the microphone, looked up into the lights, and let fly. If the crowd got restless, I sat down on a stool, which caught their interest, and if they rustled again, I stood up. After twenty minutes or as soon as the story came to an extremely long pause, I stopped and said, “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children above average,” and walked off.
Then he adds this:
Standing at stage center with your toes to the footlights, you’re as close to a thousand people as you can conceivably be. Out there on the prairie where even close friends tend to stand at arm’s length, such intimacy on a grand scale is shocking and thrilling and a storyteller reaches something like critical mass, passing directly from solid to radio waves without going through the liquid or gaseous phase. You stand in the dark, you hear people leaning forward, you smell the spotlights, and you feel invisible. No script, no clock, only pictures in your mind that the audience easily sees, they sit so close.
Let fly he did, on and on, year after year, and from the stories that flew out of those evenings came Lake Wobegon Days, Leaving Home, We Are Still Married, Wobegon Boy, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, and a few others that have slipped by me.
From the passages just quoted it might be argued that the student of Garrison Keillor needn’t bother seeking his origins among the usual suspects: Winesburg, Ohio, the Spoon River Anthology, O.E. Rolvaag, Hamlin Garland, or, more distantly, the rural stories of Chekhov, Gogol, or Turgenev. Keillor’s earlier masters were more likely Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny, the Grand Ole Opry, or such flavorful local shows as Hackberry Hotel and W. Lee O’Daniel and the Lightcrust Doughboys. I invalided myself out of the first grade and most of the second in order to listen to just such radio.
Lake Wobegon Days and Leaving Home are the Lake Wobegon books I like best; both are very pleasurable reads, and yet I often wish I could have been in the World Theatre in the Twin Cities on the night of June 13, 1987, so I could actually hear the Storyteller let fly. Best would have been to be there, next best to have heard the show on the radio, which I did a number of times, and last best was to read the stories once they had floated down and adhered to a page.
Several writers act a little—Norman Mailer was in Ragtime, Jerzy Kozinski in Reds—and some actors write a little: Where would The New Yorker be without Steve Martin and Woody Allen? But few have crossed from performance to page as extensively as Garrison Keillor. I have no idea how many radio shows he’s done—A Prairie Home Companion will be thirty years old next year—and there are thirteen books. Geographically the poles of his world seem to be Lake Wobegon in the upper Midwest and the old New Yorker offices on West 43rd Street in Manhattan.
A good deal of the new novel, Love Me, is set in those same New Yorker offices during the era of the famous editor William Shawn. The hero of Love Me is a best-selling author from the Midwest named Larry Wyler; Mr. Shawn likes him and he is soon ensconced among the likes of J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Calvin Trillin—Wyler seems to have missed the ladies—and, of course, William Shawn himself, who is made to deliver some monologues that are rather a sharp departure from those we have been hearing about Lake Wobegon:
“Sometimes I feign fluster—it’s a useful strategem with women,” he [Shawn] said.
“I liked hanging out with Dorothy Parker because she could talk louder than anybody else. Glamorous woman, if you liked the sweet smell of gin. She had a voice that could crack ice. Most guys were scared shitless and of course her pal Benchley was completely in the bag, so Dotty needed a man to stand up to her. We were having lunch at the Algonquin and Kaufman was there and Marc Connelly and Harpo Marx and Joe Kennedy and Dietrich and that whole crowd, and I said to Die- trich in kraut, ‘I got a sausage for your bun, mein Schatz,’ and that got Dotty all jealous and she was running her toe up and down my calf. So I took off her shoe and pissed in it without anyone noticing and handed it to her and said, ‘Hey, you’re in luck,’ and she jumped up and yelled, ‘He pissed in my shoe!’ and they all said, ‘Aw, shuddup, you’re drunk.’ All except Dietrich. She saw the whole thing. She saw that the great thing about being a quiet little bald guy is that you can piss in a lady’s shoe at lunch and nobody will ever believe you did it.”
Hardly the Shawn we know from a dozen memoirs. Garrison Keillor is wearing his gaudiest humorist’s robes here, whether or not they fit his talent. It is a little funny that Larry Wyler, after a failed second novel and a long stretch of writer’s block, ends up killing The New Yorker’s publisher, a hood named Tony Crossandotti, who had planned to merge the revered magazine with Field and Stream and call it The New Yonder.
In the course of his embarrassing siege of writer’s block at The New Yorker Larry Wyler gets asked to write a personal advice column for a Twin Cities newspaper, an opportunity he accepts somewhat ruefully, but proves to be very good at. He calls himself Mr. Blue and doles out friendly, wry advice on whatever human foible or mischance he’s asked to consider. Here Garrison Keillor is edging into Miss Lonelyhearts territory, but he wisely keeps the queries more light than heavy, and Mr. Blue’s responses likewise.
More about Love Me later. For the moment let’s travel back to Lake Wobegon, in search of earlier, purer, Garrison Keillor.
First, a glimpse of how people in Lake Wobegon handle the old verities such as birth and death:
Lake Wobegon babies are born in a hospital thirty-some miles away and held at the glass by a nurse named Betty who has worked there for three hundred years—then it’s a long drive home for the new father in the small morning hours, and when he arrives, he is full of thought. His life has taken a permanent turn toward rectitude and sobriety and a decent regard for the sanctity of life; having seen his own flesh in a layette he wants to talk about some deep truths he has discovered in the past few hours to his own parents, who have sat up in their pajamas, waiting for word about the baby’s name and weight. Then they want to go to bed.
Lake Wobegon people die in those hospitals, unless they are quick about it, and their relations drive to sit with them. When Grandma died, she had been unconscious for three days…. It was August. We held cool washcloths to her forehead and moistened her lips with ice cubes….
Eight of us sat around the bed that first afternoon, taking turns holding Grandma’s hand so that if she had any sensation it would be one of love…. I felt we should be saying profound things about Grandma’s life and what it had meant to each of us, but I didn’t know how to say we should. …The men only sat and crossed and uncrossed their legs, slowly perishing of profound truth, until they began to whisper among themselves—I heard gas mileage mentioned, and a new combine—and then they resumed their normal voices. “I wouldn’t drive a Fairlane if you give it to me for nothing,” Uncle Frank said. “They are nothing but grief….” Now that I know myself a little better I can forgive them for wanting to get back onto familiar ground…. She [Grandma] was eighty-two. Her life was in all of us in the room. Nobody needed to be told that, except me, and now I’ve told myself.
Another eternal verity is Nature, not always benign:
Some people in the town were reminded of Benny Barnes, who was hit by lightning six times. After three, he was nervous when a storm approached, and got in his car and drove fast, but it got him the fourth time, and the fifth time it was sunny with just one little cloud in the sky and, bam, lightning again. He had burn scars down his legs and his ears had been ringing for years. After the fifth, he quit running. The sixth one got him sitting in the yard on an aluminum lawn chair. After that he more or less gave up. When the next thunderstorm came through, he took a long steel pipe and stood out on the hill, holding it straight up. He had lost the will to live. But just the same it took him fifteen more years to die. It wasn’t from lightning: he caught cold from the rain and died of pneumonia.
And, on top of that, there’s human nature, as devilish and unstable in Lake Wobegon as anywhere else:
At Art’s Bait & Night O’Rest Motel, guests find the cabins are small, the chairs are hard, and the floors are studded with exposed nails. For decoration, an exciting wildlife picture, and for relaxation, you get two cast-iron lawn chairs…. In Cabin Two, you will read: “Don’t clean Fish on the Picnic tables. How many Times do I have to Repeat myself? Use the table by the Botehouse. That’s What it’s there for. Anyone caught Cleaning Fish on Picnic Tables gets thrown out bag+baggage. This means You. For Pete Sake, use your goddamn Head.” Underneath that gruff exterior is a man who means every word he says. Every summer you will see at least one car hightailing it out of Art’s with a red-faced man at the wheel and a backseat full of scared children. The man is livid…. What has burned his bacon is the utter shame of it. The humiliation. He caught the sunnies about a hundred yards off the dock, one, two, three, four big ones…. He was so excited, he cleaned them right away for breakfast, on the picnic table, intending to wash it off afterward. Then a skinny, sawed-off sonuvabitch with a face like a bloodhound’s came up from behind, grabbed the knife away from him, and said, “Get the hell out of here. You got five minutes and then I get the shotgun.”…The man was berserk, one of those psycho-rural types you see in movies…. A vacation is ruined. He had to run around the cabin, throwing stuff into suitcases, hustling sleepy kids into the car, grabbing up wet swimsuits and towels, while his wife said, “Can’t you just talk to him?” and the maniac stood outside the door saying, “If you can’t read a simple goddam sign and follow one simple goddam instruction, then you can just get your fat butt the hell out of here.” Right in front of the children. And he wouldn’t give back the knife. Careening along the dirt road, the dad’s gorge begins to rise for good, and down the straightaway he completely rethinks his position on gun control. The speedway turns are to compensate for his not decking the man on the spot and cutting his scrawny throat. Oscar Hansen has seen a lot of cars almost spin out on the long turn and come up through his barbed wire. He’s thought about putting up a sign:
HE’S LIKE THAT TO EVERYBODY.
Garrison Keillor and I in a sense book-end the American prairie. His little town is at the top—actually a little above the top—and my little town is at the bottom. He mentions that in Lake Wobegon the one traffic light is always green: in my Archer City the one traffic light is always red. After all it guards an important intersection, as intersections go on the plains, and the authorities really mean for drivers to stop. And most do; but watch out for the occasional trucker, high as heaven on oil-field speed, who is apt to come barreling through in the middle of the night doing eighty-five or so, failing to notice either the stoplight or the town.
In youth I left this little prairie town and traveled the world, settling for various lengths of time in such glamourous capitals as Houston (petrochemicals), D.C. (politicians), and L.A. (movie stars). In all I was gone from my prairie home for more than forty years, and would like to think that I could write about Georgetown or West Hollywood with the same authority as I can employ in my books about town and prairie; but my readers will have none of that. They think I’m fooling myself. The farther I get from that blinking red light at the intersection of two roads that don’t go anywhere interesting, the less authority I seem to be able to summon; at least that’s my readers’ opinion, which they are not bashful about stating.
So it may be with Garrison Keillor. His novelist-hero Larry Wyler, with the proceeds of his one best seller, buys an apartment on Central Park West and spends his days fidgeting in an office on West 43rd Street. He has mastered the geography and can do the populace of Manhattan in different voices, but, somehow, it just seems that his gut refused to relocate; it’s still back in St. Paul. Garrison Keillor has always been able to be funny, but the funny we’re getting in Love Me is not the solid apple-pie funny of the radio shows or the early books. In fact, it’s no longer humor; now it’s wit, and it’s wit, constantly exercised, that finally drags Love Me under. Three witty sentences on a page may delight; a dozen witty sentences on a page is torture, a constant check to Garrison Keillor’s occasional surges of narrative power.
This is a pity, because there’s one superlative character in Love Me, and that’s Iris, the wife of the briefly successful novelist. Iris is a plucky, appealing Midwestern woman whose judgment is a lot better than that of her excitable, ambitious husband. Iris is a sort of Twin Cities version of Marge, the small-town policewoman in the Coen brothers’ brilliant movie Fargo. With a little more attention and a lot less wit Iris might have risen out of this novel and captured America’s heart—she sure got mine—and she still manages to shine despite being half-smothered in mopey witticisms.
I don’t know if there’s a cure for Garrison Keillor’s wit-disease, but if there is it’s not likely to be found on West 43rd Street. I understand all too well why he might think it’s time to put Lake Wobegon behind him, but whether he can do that and still write books that matter is another question.
November 6, 2003