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Lake Wobegon 1956 – by Garrison Keillor

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The first of three reviews of humorous books from the remainder bin.

The novel is in a pretty bad state. A future historian surveying the novel at the turn of the century will see a world populated with grisly serial killers, overly-imaginative sexual perverts, legions of oppressed and/or repressed people of certain socio-political constructs, dire pain and sorrow emanating from all directions; the sole exception being lonely, 30-something, city-women who drink cosmopolitans and have a staggering number of sexual partners. What he won’t have is any insight into the souls of the vast majority. The people who populate the day-to-day world will be a blank slate to him. Or worse, he will come away believing we are mindless slaves to some combination of our neuroses and advertising.

That’s a shame, because I believe there are great stories in normalcy. The sales rep who is thousands of miles away from home trying to close a deal on two hours sleep with a broken laptop. The divorced mom who gets hauled out of work to meet with her daughter’s teacher who thinks the kid should be on Ritalin. The 22-year-old who, upon graduation from state college, realizes she will make a better living as a waitress than an entry-level web designer. The hypertense father of four who can’t stop eating baby back ribs and hopes Viagra will save his marriage. The families who haul themselves out of bed at 5 AM because that’s the only time the hockey league can get ice time for the kids. The 38-year-old woman away on her first ever solo vacation. The middle aged bachelor who realizes that all he has to show for his life is an encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s movies.

There are great stories in the common, with stark and revealing conflicts, an awful lot of humor, and an endless supply of humanity. The stories may get told, but it’s increasingly unlikely novelists will do it. Why bother with the trouble of creating interest and depth from commonality? It’s much easier to go to the headlines and pile on the bombast. The further and further novels get from the mainstream of life the more the novel loses it’s stature as an art form. It becomes just another thing to pass the time, another form of entertainment. And since reading a novel is much more troublesome than most other ways to pass the time, the novel moves further and further to the sidelines of art, taking up a spot right next to poetry and painting (if it hasn’t already), with only a handful of devotees talking amongst themselves.

This is, I suppose, natural. Another form of writing will rise to take its place as a vital form of humanistic expression. It could be ‘blogs for all I know. But as a novelist, I can’t help but be saddened. Especially since it almost certainly means I’ll be keeping my day job. Forever.

One author who still occasionally writes of normalcy is Garrison Keillor. His well-received Wobegon Boy is a classic example of fiction as contemporary documentation, with characters and plotlines of the sort that happen to everyone, everyday. No murders, no wanton sex, no magic realism or impressionistic symbolism; just funny, well paced and smartly observed storytelling. Keillor’s currently remaindered novel Lake Wobegon: 1956, is dissimilar in plot but very similar in concept.

We follow a 14-year-old boy, Gary, who describes himself as having the face of a frog, across a single summer in Lake Wobegon. Those expecting the gentle folksy stories of Keillor’s radio shows may be shocked by the frank nature of this book. Keillor stays true to reality in expressing the inner thoughts of a 14-year-old boy; that is to say there is an overreaching obsession with sex and toilet humor. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this book is that it honestly portrays the mind of a 14-year-old boy — including the ignorance, awkwardness, and outright painfulness of it all — without ever being prurient or lurid. Frank and explicit yes, but American Pie this ain’t.

Clearly autobiographical to a large extent, Gary lives a stifling life amidst a devoutly religious family. Gary is wracked with guilt. He knows Jesus and his late grandfather are always watching from above, even when he has a friend’s copy of High School Orgies hidden inside Life magazine. He knows it would kill his mother to find-out that he has been kissing his 17-year-old cousin Kate. And God forbid anyone ever see the insulting stories he’s written about his teacher. To him, it seems the world is a perfectly orderly place and he only exists as a freak within it.

And yet, much more comes to light. He’s discovers a strain of (very mild) mental illness in his family — no raving lunatics, no axe murders; just a small problem that has been right under his nose, but he didn’t have a clue because no one ever talked about it. He is stunned when his mother talks about a time when she went away to New York to visit his father in the service. Just the idea of his mother wandering around New York at all hours of the night blows his mind. But most tellingly, when Gary’s clever stories and poetry are criticized and dismissed by the authority figures in his life, he receives a bit of advice on artistic integrity from a hard-drinking, debt-besotted, rock singer who few in his circle have had anything good to say about. Gary steps beyond the confines of his rigid faith and family.

Actually, that’s a formula for disaster. Misunderstood child, repressed by religious family in a rural community, sees the evil that has been holding him back and breaks away. Except Keillor isn’t anywhere close to that trite. Though he clearly, sympathizes with Gary, but he never descends into judgementalism.

In contrast Keillor has also written such novels as Me: by Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente, a clever satire of, or a shameless attack upon (depending on where your political sensibilities lie), Jesse Ventura, featuring what a jacket copy editor might call personalities pulled from the headlines of the day. Or his latest, Love, Me, a slightly confused story of a writer which who goes off into the world only to end up in cahoots of the mob at the request of John Updike.

Keillor is, justifiably and necessarily, trying to push into new places with his novels. Criticizing the far-fetched in comparison to the normal is akin to a fan of A Hard Day’s Night dissing the White Album. But here’s hoping Keillor doesn’t completely lose sight of the normal.

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About David Mazzotta