Fishing for Meaning in Lake Wobegon Waters : Garrison Keillor Reflects on the Success of His Semi-Autobiographical Best Seller

Times Staff Writer

Garrison Keillor, the resident wit of Lake Wobegon, Minn., the town whose people truly live by its motto, Sumus Quod Sumus ("We Are What We Are"), acknowledged just a twinge of discomfort with the rocket ride of "Lake Wobegon Days" to the pinnacle of best-sellerdom, and with his new celebrity and the creature comforts that accompany it.

Crossing one red-socked leg over the other, Keillor expounded a bit on the Minnesotan philosophy, as explained in his book: "Left to our own devices, we Wobegonians go straight for the small potatoes. Majestic doesn't appeal to us; we like the Grand Canyon better with Clarence and Arlene parked in front of it, smiling. We feel uneasy at momentous events."

If They Only Knew

Now, given that the folks in Wobegon "have a proprietary interest in me," Keillor said, "well, if they knew I was sitting here talking in this pretentious, high-blown way about Minnesota, if they knew I flew from San Francisco down here first class, if they knew I stayed in a room like the one I stayed in at the Stanford Court Hotel, they'd wonder about that . . . ."

Sure, that bothers him "a little bit," Keillor said. "But not as much as you might think. And not as much as they might hope."

Keillor created Lake Wobegon (alt. 1,418, pop. 942) 11 years ago as the locale for his new public radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion."

It is a town that, as any dedicated Companionite can tell you, has one traffic light, almost always green; two parking meters, mostly "for show," and little white frame houses with clotheslines and plaster animals and cast-iron deer.

'Outstanding Bellies'

In Lake Wobegon, "most men wear their belts low, there being so many outstanding bellies," the old-timers drive their cars "at about trolling speed" and "you could stand in the middle of Main Street and not be in anyone's way--not forever, but for as long as a person would want to stand in the middle of the street."

Now, Keillor knows this is funny stuff, and a listening audience estimated at 2 million, most of whom have never been closer to Minnesota than seeing Walter Mondale on television, agree. If he's tickled a universal funny bone, that's for some outsider to explain, Keillor insisted--"I've lived in Minnesota all my life."

"A Prairie Home Companion," an American Public Radio broadcast live from the Orpheum Theater in St. Paul each Saturday night is, by Keillor's description, "a strange show that I don't understand."

Those tuned in this past Saturday evening were treated to a replay of a March program that featured a little Cajun music, a gospel-style duet by Keillor and Emmylou Harris and a classic 20-minute monologue that began, as Keillor monologues always begin, with "It has been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my hometown . . . ."

This week's monologue, which opened with a report of Clarence Bunsen not having a heart attack, but going to church anyhow because he was afraid he'd had a heart attack, somehow wound up as a dissertation on Norwegian thrift and stoicism and an explanation of why a 60-year-old like Clarence, who's strictly a sensible socks fellow, should wear boxer shorts and not "funny little purple briefs."

It then digressed into noting the efforts made by some in his flock to get Pastor Ingqvist of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church to liven up a bit, be more like "Reverend Super" of the "Turquoise Temple" in Anaheim, to spread the word of the Lord with a little more "rising inflection" and "falling deflection" and a feel for "the long pause," w-h-e-t-h-e-r i-t m-a-k-e-s a l-o-t o-f s-e-n-s-e o-r n-o-t.

And it was noted that the efforts had been a bit too successful, that the good pastor had perfected the technique so well that "you keep thinking that he's stopped."

Well, you get the idea.

And that was about all the news this week from Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average."

It was brought to us by Minnesota Language Systems, a cassette teaching system so effective that "in a week or two people will think you've lived in Minnesota all your life," by Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery ("If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it") and by The Fearmonger Shop (est. 1954) "in the Dales . . . Clydesdale, Chippendale, Mondale . . . and all the other fine shopping centers."

"They're trying to kill me off, but I'm thriving," Keillor said, settling in for yet another session on the demanding book promotion circuit. "Stopping smoking made a big difference." (He kicked the habit six months ago.)

He was talking about his boyhood in Anoka, Minn., a place not far as the crow flies from Lake Wobegon but "a good distance in every (other) way. A good part of Anoka was always looking toward Minneapolis, about 20 miles to the south. Minneapolis was sort of an arbiter of taste."

The family Keillor, however, did not follow the pack. "My father's family did not look to Minneapolis," he explained. "They set themselves aside, apart from the world, out of religious conviction. (They were members of a tiny fundamentalist sect, the Sanctified Brethren.)"

Lake Wobegon and its residents are fictitious but, Keillor acknowledged, "To some extent they're based on my mother and father." When they're in St. Paul, he said, "They come to the show and I think they're pleased it has gone well but they don't tell me how they feel. I'm sure there are parts of this book that hurt them."

He grew up in a home that he describes as "strict," rather than repressive, explaining that "repression represents a view of psychology" that the Brethren would not recognize. It was a good Christian household that frowned upon drinking, dancing, movies and other worldly temptations.

Keillor recalls, when he was 14, hearing the Brethren talk about the Lord's coming, an event that was always described as imminent, and he remembers, "I hoped He didn't come until I'd had sex once because I wasn't sure sex would be a part of heaven."

Part of the Tradition

Storytelling was part of the Keillor tradition. "Some of them were awfully good: When people came over we did not turn on the TV."

It was a society with which he was, and is, in conflict. He treasures the human relationships--"There was a tremendous generosity of love and affection. This is overlooked by outsiders when they write about religious people." This was a love, he said, "which made me from time to time intensely happy."

But when Gary Keillor made up his mind at the age of 10 that he was going to be a writer, he realized that "there is a time when every child has to fight for his own dream and passion. They felt writing was not a fit line of work, that it led to a life that was fraught with temptation. And, of course, they were right."

Unswayed by his parents' argument that he should do "something simple and productive," Keillor at the age of 13 changed his name from Gary to Garrison. "My legal name's still Gary," he said, and he's Gary to old friends and relatives, but he thought Garrison sounded "a little more formidable. That name struck me as something that would almost guarantee success."

Meanwhile, to his parents' satisfaction, his brother went on to become an engineer, "which they approved of," and his sister married a Baptist, "which they didn't approve of."

After graduation from the University of Minnesota, Keillor did a brief stint at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he was let go after four months. At the time, he said, he assumed that this was simply the lot of a temporary employee but now he thinks maybe he was gently fired.

This thought does not make him unhappy. "It makes me admire anyone who'd be so considerate of a 20-year-old," Keillor said, rather characteristically.

At 43, he is a man with roots deep in Minnesota and while he does find humor in these people and their somewhat mundane lives, he has deep respect for their goodness and their realness and their honesty.

"Minnesota humor is self-denigrating humor," he said. "We try to accuse ourselves of things before other people can get around to it."

He likes the Wobegonians, people like Myrtle Krebsbach "who, they say, enjoys two pink daiquiris every Friday night and between the first and second hums 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips' and does a turn that won her first prize in a Knights of Columbus talent show in 1936 at the Alhambra Ballroom."

"I've gone through so many different feelings toward my father's family," he said, "from wanting to get away from them to satire to trying to talk about them with admiration and piety but also some humor."

He was thoughtful for a moment and added, "That came as quite a shock to me when I was much younger and satirizing them in sort of a flat, sophomoric way, in the same way Sinclair Lewis satirized them, as leading empty, shallow lives." He had to grow up a bit, Keillor said, before he learned that "satire is moral. It attacks pretensions and it attacks power and those people have no power and they have no pretense." Ask him if he is a religious man and he will reply quickly, "I certainly hope so. I believe the same as when I was young. What's changed is my life and it's possible, I think, to believe something and not know how to live it. The Christian faith calls us to a standard of which we'll always fall short. The harder we try, of course, the farther we do fall short."

He does believe, "Perhaps my people made too much of a thing of self-accusation."

He is troubled by the Christian teaching to be selfless and without pride. "It's not clear to me," he said, "how a person who's a writer and a performer does that."

Full of Notions

Garrison Keillor never found it necessary to leave Minnesota. "I never had a good enough reason," he said. Not even when he was "young and ambitious and full of notions" about himself did he find it necessary to subject himself "to the misery of loneliness and having to get your feet on the ground among a bunch of strangers who don't care about you." He just "never got unhappy enough in Minnesota," he explained.

(Divorced, he lives today in St. Paul. His 16-year-old son lives with his former wife in Minneapolis).

Recognition of his talents came rather early on from the New Yorker, which in 1974 paid him $6,000, his first real writing money, for a piece about the Grand Ole Opry. He blew it on a train trip to the West Coast with his wife and son. The trip was memorable not for the majestic scenery but because he left his briefcase in the men's washroom at the Portland train station and, in it, his manuscript, a single copy, of "Lake Wobegon Memoir," which he was convinced was a masterpiece.

In July of that year he started "A Prairie Home Companion," introducing Lake Wobegon as the locale in the hopes that some Saturday night onstage "my lost story would come down the beam and land in my head. Eleven years later, I am still waiting for it."

Inevitably, Garrison Keillor is being compared with Mark Twain, with Will Rogers. He shrugs off such comparisons, saying, "We'd we'd recognize each other as being in the same line of work." The Twain comparison, he suggested, is "probably bestowed on four or five people every year by 40 or 50 newspaper reviewers."

And then Keillor digressed a bit, as he is wont to do. Interesting, he said, that Twain is as funny today as he was 100 years ago, but not "people like Max Shulman ('Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys'), who was considered very funny when I was in college. Even James Thurber, I don't think, reads so well today."

Keillor, as humorist, is somewhat puzzled about his own identity. "I don't think I'm a satirist, really," said. "I used to be one. But I've become something else, something odd that I don't understand. It seems to be that on the radio show I took a turn back there somewhere and I got out of the comedy business and veered off away from satire and started being more interested in sentiment and, to some extent, bathos. I became much less a cool performer and more emotional. I'm not sure what to make of it myself because it's embarrassing, in a way."

Yes, embarrassing, Keillor said, "because it's, I don't know, it's like undressing on stage. But it seems to me after all these years when you stand up there and feel the affection (from the live audience) it behooves you to do something better than just receive it and be cool and witty and give all these laugh lines."

From time to time he has thoughts, just passing thoughts, of "weariness" with "A Prairie Home Companion" but, he said, "My truest feelings about the show are good and hopeful--if it can survive its promotion I would think we'd have a good long life."

Writing is Keillor's idea of fun. When he travels, he writes post cards, "by the dozens, to people I haven't corresponded with in years. The post card is a great neglected literary form about 50 words in length, yet there's something you do in 50 words you might not be able to do if you had to use 500." He writes post cards in "little odd minutes that need to be improved."

At home he is writing a television adaptation of a New Yorker piece for PBS' American Television Playhouse and he is at work on "a book of letters from residents who've left Lake Wobegon, the exiles writing home, people who have found their life elsewhere but who are obligated to let their hometown in on it, the way they ought to."

It will tell, Keillor said, about people "who have followed their dream. There are times in a person's life when loyalty and experience would lead you one way but your heart tells you another thing, so you take a long step into the dark.

"And I find those moments inspiring in other people's lives, as in my own."

To know Lake Wobegon is to know the Tommerdahls and the Olesons and the Tollefsons. And it is to appreciate, for example, the wisdom of buying eyeglasses, no matter how hideous, from Clifford's in Lake Wobegon, where Clifford also sells shoes and ties, rather than getting spiffy Calvin Klein glasses from Vanity Vision over in St. Cloud. As Keillor points out, "Calvin Klein isn't going to come with the Rescue Squad and he isn't going to teach your children about redemption by grace. You couldn't find Calvin Klein to save your life."

Herewith, two nuggets from "Lake Wobegon Days" (Viking: $17.95), Garrison Keillor's not-quite-autobiographical look at life in a small town in Middle America (in this case, a town that exists partly in his imagination and partly in his experience):

On air conditioning: "It was luxuries like A/C that brought down the Roman Empire. With A/C, their windows were shut, they couldn't hear the barbarians coming . . . You get A/C and the next day Mom leaves the house in a skin-tight dress, holding a cigarette and a glass of gin, walking an ocelot on a leash."

On bombast: "About six years ago, Lake Wobegon High decided to cut out commencement speeches by the valedictorian, salutatorian, and class orator because they all sounded the same."

So now the world has beat a literary path to Lake Wobegon's door. (In reality, as Keillor points out, no one comes to Lake Wobegon unless they're visiting friends or made a wrong turn in the road.)

Will success spoil Lake Wobegon? "I don't think it will," Keillor said. "If Lake Wobegon had not been appealing and successful, it would have ended Lake Wobegon. They say power corrupts but I believe powerlessness corrupts, too. I know writers who have been ruined by failure."

FO Garrison Keillor, public-radio storyteller and author of "Lake Wobegon Days," puts the mythical burg in its rightful place.

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