Modern American writers have taken to heart Thomas Wolfe’s warning that ‘you can’t go home again.’ These days, being American or being modern or both seems to demand recognition of exile. The writer has to say goodbye to his folks at the earliest opportunity. That is only the first stage in his education in the estrangements of our times. Indeed, such farewells are best got over with in his first book; if successful, the account of how he grew up and out of his small-town, small-minded origins will launch him into the literary world where, after majoring in alienation and/or anomie, he can set about facing the real challenges of a writer’s life: alcohol and alimony.
So it was a relief that Garrison Keillor should have left the Midwest and come to rest in the bosom of the New Yorker. Once installed there, he could safely be identified as ‘the new Thurber’, well-placed to cast an ironic, distanced eye upon the mores of his fellow Americans, able to deploy his childhood among the Plymouth Brethren of rural Minnesota much as Thurber would summon up the shades of his aunts in Columbus, Ohio. If Keillor had not said goodbye to his fictional home town of Lake Wobegon quite as irrevocably as, say, Hemingway had shaken off the dust of Oak Park, Illinois, he was at least in a position to say hullo to John Updike in the office corridor. He had put enough mileage between himself and his origins to achieve urbanity.
Yet it takes only a brief comparison between Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories and Updike’s Rabbit novels (or, even more to the point, Updike’s suffocatingly wry autobiography) to see that it has not quite worked out like that. Updike’s cunningly wrought prose is weighed down with didactic and aesthetic intention: in fact, the material is so wrought that the gate scarcely turns on its hinges. Keillor, by contrast, remains obstinately homespun. True, he does write now and then about leaving home, but he never really leaves. He refuses to be distanced from his material. That is not only the secret of his huge popular success. It is also what gives his best stories a natural verve and a simplicity of line which raise them far above comic anecdotage. He is not too proud to raid the treasure chest of local myths and legends: the man who buried an old Chevy coupé, tailfins and all, for use as a septic tank, the man who is taking his wife to Minneapolis for a cancer check-up and absent-mindedly drives off leaving her in the truckstop ladies. But he does something with them which makes them not only as funny as Thurber or Benchley but also kind of Homeric in a low-slung, Midwestern sort of way.
Keillor’s four volumes of stories, sketches, reminiscences, pastiches and doggerel verses are trying everything they know not to make up an oeuvre. Yet at his best (and he does not always bother to be at his best), his tales of life among the Lutherans, Catholics and Exclusive Brethren in this misbegotten ultimate backwood are as laconic and delicate as anything by the acknowledged masters of 20th-century storytelling. Now and then, I was surprised to find Keillor’s uncommunicative Norwegian farmers come over like a burlesque version of the monosyllabic characters in Hemingway’s early stories of upstate Michigan – burlesque perhaps, but no less poignant.
In some ways, Keillor is a throwback to that brief extraordinary generation of 19th-century American comic taletellers and versifiers, all born in the 1830 and 1840s: Bret Harte, Artemus Ward, Joel Chandler Harris and, lion among them, Mark Twain. With O. Henry, born a decade later, we are already moving out of the oral tradition, with its loose-limbed jogtrot rhythms and its shameless delight in red herrings and shaggy dogs, its weakness for pratfalls and confidence tricks, and beginning to find ourselves in the age of the well-made tale which fits neatly into its allotted slot. It is to that earlier tradition that Keillor belongs, the tradition in which the reader really does think he is hearing – not reading an imitation of the spoken word.
Keillor’s old-fashioned skills were sharpened by his long experience in another old-fashioned medium – live radio. He invented, and presented for more than a decade, a musical variety show – The Prairie Home Companion – which spread across the US and made him famous enough to be on the cover of Time magazine almost before his first collection of stories was published in the mid-Eighties. This unusual and prolonged apprenticeship (he was born in 1942) has made him remarkably assured on the stage no less than on the page. His one-man show, briefly seen in London in September at the Apollo Theatre, is a delight. Keillor ambles about the stage looking like a very tall, rather fit frog, singing pastiches of evergreen popular songs, cowboy songs and anything else that occurs to him, reciting mock-epics of a kind that would be familiar to the audience in the Dodge City Opera House and telling elaborate tales of his native Minnesota in a honeyed, sonorous style, the dying cadences of which are eerily reminiscent of Mr Alistair Cooke reading his Letter from America. Keillor’s unforced charm, variation of pace and command of the audience seemed to me to put him in the front line of one-man showmen, along with, say, Michael MacLiammoir, Ruth Draper and Noel Coward.
Thus no modern writer can have taken more literally the injunction to ‘read out loud the sentence you have just written’ – except that Keillor has spoken not just an individual sentence or two but the whole story plus a raft of variations tried out over the years. His writings consequently have not merely their own particular rhythm and grace but also the pauses, changes of pace and volume, lightenings and darkenings of mood, which are required to keep the audience awake.
It is easy enough to describe the geography of Lake Wobegon: the Norge Co-op grain elevator, the railway line which goes nowhere, the statue of the Blessed Virgin standing next door to the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, the squat brick lodge of the Sons of Knute, the statue to the Unknown Norwegian. It is also quite easy to conjure something of the unyielding ferocity of the seasons in the Midwest, the winter which lasts eight months with torrents of mud to follow, and the heat of summer, in which the hostile land relents and its stern inhabitants find themselves knee deep in tomatoes and sweetcorn.
But there is a quality about Keillor’s best stories which goes beyond topography and reminiscence. The best ones, I think, are to be found in Leaving Home, the collection in which each story begins with the formula which he uses on radio: ‘It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.’ The story is told both from within and without the world it describes, the narrator caught in a love-hate relationship which really is balanced between nostalgic affection and resentful disaffection, the one quality coming to the rescue when the other threatens to swamp the boat. The narrator does want to burst out of the cramped, ungenerous, repressive conditions where nobody is allowed to show joy or gratitude or love and everyone believes that life is real, life is earnest and nothing much else. At the same time, he does not greatly care for the unbuttoned, unconnected outside world, where people are ‘as loose as gravel’. At times, Keillor is so sickeningly sentimental about the beauties of backwoods life that you feel like calling for a strong draught of Gissing or Beckett. But then around the next corner the fates are usually lurking – and in Minnesota it would be simply fatuous to try and butter up the fates by calling them the Kindly Ones.
The most powerful antidote to the occasional overdoses of sugar is the footnote which spreads over 23 pages of Lake Wobegon Days setting out the ‘95 theses’ that ‘a former Wobegonian’ intended to nail to the door of the Lutheran church and instead slipped under the door of the editor of the Lake Wobegon Herald-Star because he heard the Luther Leaguers inside the church holding their Halloween pizza party. The theses are a half-crazed, drunken indictment of all the gentilities, traumas and repressions inflicted on their author by his mother: the result is somewhere between Jean Genet and Huckleberry Finn, funny and sweet, but also horrible.
Religion is a keenly contested matter in Lake Wobegon:
If you’re not Catholic, you’re absolutely not Catholic. We don’t go in for nondenominationalism and tolerance. In the Bible we don’t find the word ‘maybe’ so much, or read where God says, ‘On the other hand, uh, there could be other points of view on this.’ So we go in for strict truth and let the other guy be tolerant of us.
On the other hand, Lake Wobegon is certainly washed by the great emollient tide of modernism. When the 24 Lutheran ministers on their annual tour, which this year has the theme of Meeting the Pastoral Needs of Rural America, go out for a sail in Wally’s 26-foot pontoon and the boat starts sinking, the Rev. J. Peter Larson tells Pastor Ingqvist: ‘Dave, I don’t have the answers, but I think that all of us will come out of this with a feeling of unity of concern.’ Keillor is very good at catching the contrast between the Wobegonians’ unflinching resistance to worldly pleasures and the way they are suckers for any kind of religious snake-oil merchant, ancient or modern. Yet he refuses to do a Sinclair Lewis or Edmund Gosse on the fundamentalists, preferring to keep his own revulsion under a cloak of irony and never quite losing his admiration for their fortitude with all its defects of self-righteousness and mean-spiritedness.
The newcomer to Keillor ought, I am afraid, to start off by reading either Leaving Home or Lake Wobegon Days. The new book is a collection of oddments, many of which do not work nearly as well as they do on stage – ‘The Finn who would not take a sauna’, for example. Some do not work at all. Some of the pieces which originally appeared as ‘Notes and Comment’ and ‘Talk of the Town’ pieces in the New Yorker are just as insufferably laid-back, ho-hummish as the pieces that normally appear in those spaces. Writers who are obliged to earn a crust in such departments cannot avoid adopting the house style, but they ought to breathe a sigh of relief that at least their pieces can stay anonymous.
Worse still, in some of the pieces which were originally signed, we become uncomfortably aware that, since we last met him, the narrator has become a celebrity. He takes holidays on Patmos, opens basketball games and gives the Memorial Day address at Lake Wobegon. He also gives us his thoughts on current affairs, especially the Reagan Presidency; these are like most people’s thoughts on the Reagan Presidency, but even if they were an improvement on most people’s thoughts, we would not wish to know them. The more the ‘real’ Garrison Keillor comes into view in the full light of day as a fairly liberal New Yorker writer living in Manhattan, the less and less plausible seem his links to that half-fabulous world of bachelor Norwegian farmers cutting fishing holes in the lake under huge Minnesota skies. Here and there in this book are precious fragments from the Lake Wobegon Scrolls – ‘Three Marriages’, for example. And there are also one or two brilliant pastiches, perhaps the best being ‘He didn’t go to Canada’ – an account of Vice-President Quayle’s heroic service in the Indiana National Guard. But on the whole, this is a mopping-up exercise which only makes one long for a full bottle of the real stuff.