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Little Hell on the Prairie

For years now I've had the impression that poor Garrison Keillor is a talented writer trapped aboard a runaway gravy train, and I felt nothing but pity when I read a recent Publisher's Weekly review proclaiming him "one of the few true superstars of spoken word audio." My introduction to Keillor was through his early New Yorker and Atlantic stories, which I admired very much, but I'm afraid I never quite got A Prairie Home Companion, and to this day I can't remember even one of his monologues. My mind inevitably starts drifting somewhere around the halfway point and I am left with the irritating squalls of laughter from the faithful. Part of my aversion to the program is that I have always found the show's blinding whiteness--in every sense of the word--a terrifying thing, and its popular ascendancy coincided exactly with my own ecstatic departure from a small Midwestern town and a childhood and adolescence that was more Woe than gone.

It always struck me that the whole Wobegon phenomenon was about faux community on every possible level, a clean, well-fed fantasy nostalgia with an unmistakable whiff of the artsy-fartsy. Green Acres for the middlebrow Land's End set. In Keillor's celebrated voice I hear only exhaustion; he sounds tired of the whole hoodwinking project, tired of keeping his conga line of clumsy dancing skeletons in the closet. He has always sounded to me like a man hunched under his own success.

So when Keillor announced to his fanatics in 1987 that he was tired and it was time to go, I applauded his courage. The fact that the public persona was then crumbling amid revelations that he was not in fact a cup of human kindness, and that despite his role as perhaps the foremost propagator of Minnesota Nice he was a prickly and petulant fellow who would announce in a 1985 Metropolitan Home interview, "I'm not in the business of nice"...well this only made the hokey and condescending sham of A Prairie Home Companion all the more embarrassing.

Ornery cornballs have long been a Minnesota specialty (see: Dave Moore), and we've always had the uneasy pleasure of watching our homegrown celebrities grow up(tight) in public. Yet Keillor was proving constitutionally unsuited to his growing notoriety, and it was hard not to feel sorry for him. And I have to admit that I liked him all the more for his fits of pique and his very human tendency to kick back against the militant prudes and provincials. From a safe distance it certainly looked like Keillor went through a whopper of a midlife crisis, and that's precisely the sort of thing he apparently hates to hear or admit.

But then why should he really care? He's adored by millions of Caucasian people. And damned if all the public snits and embarrassments didn't make him a meaner and funnier writer.

Beneath the carefully constructed Wobegon facade, however, beats the true dark heart of a pathological sentimentalist; call it the John Wayne Gacy/David Lynch syndrome. In a 1995 New York magazine piece, Keillor admitted to writer James Kaplan that 1958 teen spree killer Charlie Starkweather had been a hero of his youth. "Do you ever experience uncontrollable rage?" he asked Kaplan. "And an urge to just drive and drive?"

That was a wonderful and uncharacteristically unguarded moment, and it's precisely that sort of darkness--nostalgia's id--that has always been missing from the radio show. What Keillor has called "the restrictions of good taste" posed by A Prairie Home Companion have managed to isolate the strain of clear and obvious contempt he bears for the rubes who people his monologues. There have been no such constraints in his writing, however, and in his stories and novels he has been able to create a more honest and balanced portrayal of the foibles, hypocrisies, and suffocating restrictions of small town life.

The anger and contempt were there in Lake Wobegon Days, in the hilarious "Ninety-Five Theses," the rant of an angry young Wobegon exile, buried in 22 pages of footnotes, directed at the elders of Lake Wobegon ("A year ago a friend offered to give me a backrub. I declined vociferously. You did this to me."). WLT: A Radio Romance ruffled plenty of feathers with its often scatological and almost wholly unsympathetic treatment of a cast of characters at a very recognizable large Midwestern radio station. But in Keillor's newest book, Wobegon Boy, he lashes back at hapless Lake Wobegon with a bare-knuckled vengeance.

The book begins with a characteristic bit of disingenuousness on Keillor's part. "I am a cheerful man," John Tollefson announces, "even in the dark, and it's all thanks to a good Lutheran mother." That's the classic Keillor bluff, and it is almost immediately apparent that in this particular version of Lake Wobegon, the woe of Tollefson's old hometown has gone nowhere. All the women are feeble, the men are addled, and the kids are suffocating. This is a drab, mean-spirited, and often very funny novel--the Fargo-ization of Lake Wobegon. The shop-worn eccentricity of his characters gives way to plain pettiness and repression, and a mortality funk hangs over everything.

Protagonist John Tollefson is a son of Lake Wobegon who flees Minneapolis and a possibly pregnant girlfriend for a job at a small public radio station on the campus of an Episcopalian college in Red Cliff, New York. There, he hassles with college administrators over programming, gets involved in a disastrous restaurant scheme, and falls in love with an independent history professor from Columbia. Tollefson's radio-station gig allows Keillor to take some mighty shots at public radio, and some of these rants are among the novel's best bits (particularly a brutal and recurring parody of Noah Adams). Keillor clearly relishes biting the hand that feeds him, and because he's the 800-pound gorilla who pays the bills he's free to gnaw all the way up to the elbow.

Eventually the death of a bumbling pack-rat father brings Tollefson back to the dreaded Wobegon, where we get a glut of dark drollery and mordant history. In a typically meandering tale, Keillor serves up embezzlement, infidelity, bankruptcy, five murders, and a pair of wildly dysfunctional Siamese twins. There is no clean or clear resolution for Tollefson--no cheery applause for the end of this monologue--and the book ultimately feels like a kind of exorcism for Keillor, a grim flip-side fantasy to the yoke of A Prairie Home Companion.

"It's possible, I think, to believe something and not know how to live it," Keillor told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. Of course it is. And in Wobegon Boy he has finally shown us a more fantastic--and at the same time more realistic--portrayal of an entire little town grimly hamstrung by that unfortunate truth. Welcome home, Garrison. Welcome home.

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