It is Saturday night in Lake Wobegon, Minn., a town that time has definitely not forgotten. To be sure, Garrison Keillor, who invented the town as the venue for his "A Prairie Home Companion" show on public radio, likes to pretend that Lake Wobegon is quaint and sleepy and sort of innocently Middle Western. But compare it to a town that really is sleepy, such as Thornton Wilder's beloved Grover's Corners, N.H., and you will see at once that "Our Town" is an exercise in nostalgia but that Keillor is hip and mod. That is especially true of his fascination with sex and scatology. (In case that last word has slipped your mind, I'll define it. It's the study of and the obsession with turds, snot and all suchlike.)
Back to Saturday night. As Keillor's novel "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956" opens, a 14-year-old boy is sitting on the front porch of his family's house. Doing what? Reading a book. What kind of a book? A book of the highest and holiest sort (that's the only sort his family countenances, they being members of a super-fundamentalist sect called the Sanctified Brethren). Specifically this boy--his name is Gary--is reading "Foxe's Book of Martyrs."
Whoa, he is reading no such thing. He is only pretending to. His eyes and mind are really fixed on a magazine called High School Orgies, which he has craftily concealed among the martyrs. Typical orgy: A high school boy named Pete and a luscious young librarian named Miss Perkins are on the library floor, making love so violently that books cascade all around them.
One more scene: a weekday afternoon in Lake Wobegon. School is not yet out for the summer of 1956. The eighth-graders at Lake Wobegon High have spent most of the morning making trouble for Miss Lewis, their teacher. (No luscious breasts here.) One of the students is Gary. He is both the narrator of the novel and its principal character. He is a brilliant kid--one of the three avowed intellectuals at the school. At lunch in the cafeteria he says something so funny that Leonard, his best friend, laughs until he has tapioca coming out of both nostrils.
Would you like to hear this gem of wit? Well, Leonard has been talking about James Dean, the star of "Rebel Without a Cause." Oh, yeah, Gary answers, "he made that movie 'Booger Without a Cause,' didn't he?" Then comes the tapioca eruption. Next thing you know, booger jokes have spread all over the school: "Twenty Thousand Boogers Under the Sea," "A Tale of Two Boogers" and so on. Gary begins to write tiny stories (50 words apiece) to go with each of the adapted titles. This is his first publication.
What's going on here? Why should Keillor, a man of 59 and the funniest writer in America, tell booger jokes and make up the 10 stories in a teen sex mag?
There are two, maybe three, reasons. The first and simplest is that, in common with a great many writers, he wants to go back to his writerly beginnings, tell about his early successes and failures. In the case of Gary, his career truly began in the summer of 1956 when he was hired by the local paper to cover the local semi-pro baseball games: He even got paid.
But if Keillor wants to talk about one writer's beginnings, why choose the form of a novel? For the freedom, most likely. I assume he made up the magazine High School Orgies, the two complete orgies and four partial ones that he includes in the book and the long letter that his father writes to the paper, as well as the wonderfully funny Fourth of July celebration in Wobegon.
What I know for sure is that Keillor asks to be associated with the events of the novel, boogers and all. He asks through his hero's name and age. Gary, the narrator, is not the only Gary connected with the novel. There is also Gary Edward Keillor, who only shifted to the more interesting and memorable name "Garrison" when he began to sell to magazines such as The New Yorker. Both Gary in the novel and Garrison in real life were 14 in 1956. Garrison, incidentally, is in a sense the son of Gary: The tall, successful writer was created by the insecure little boy who could say of himself, "I look like a tree toad who was changed into a boy but not completely. There is still plenty of toadness there." Not anymore.
The second reason that comes to mind is that Keillor seems to have been in tension with himself just about the whole of his life. The hidden sex book inside the "Book of Martyrs" neatly symbolizes that tension. He now is able to burn the book of orgies and, without adopting the book of martyrs to replace it, to recognize that these were men and women who died for their faith. Tension diminished.
Third, and this is impressive in someone as fond of pretending as Gary Edward, he seems to be intent on telling the truth about Lake Wobegon. That truth turns out to include a great deal of pain and suffering along with a still larger amount of humor.
But the result is not an entirely satisfactory book. Keillor is a great humorist, and of course "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956" is worth reading. But if he was going to go back to the summer of 1956, he should have taken his can of prose polish along. Here's one example of where it was needed:
In 1993, writing at the top of his form, Keillor published a collection of stories that he called "The Book of Guys." In the opening piece, he speaks of the differing ways in which (he says) fathers respond to sons and to daughters. The dad (G.K. says) is pretty rough on sons but easy on daughters. "When a daughter puts her arm over his shoulder and says, 'Daddy, I need to ask you something,' he is a pat of butter in a hot frying pan. The butter thinks to itself, 'This time I really am going to remain rectangular,' and then it feels very relaxed, and then it smells smoke." This is an original, wonderful metaphor, and only a man with a quirky, original mind would have thought of it.
G.K. thought of fathers and butter pats again as he wrote "Summer 1956," but this time he was neither quirky nor original. Gary is telling how his older sister set out to charm their father, and "Poor Daddy melted like a pat of butter." The reader gets the point, but there's no particular fun to it.
If you don't already read Keillor and are minded to start, my advice is: Don't start with the booger book. Start with "The Book of Guys." Before you read a word, look closely at the picture on the front cover. There's a typical inspired Keillor-esque trick here. Now turn to the third story. It's called "The Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus." And yes, this guy is a god, the god of wine and revelry, a post that Zeus is about to take away from him. If you can read that story and not melt like a whole stick of butter, maybe even sizzle and smoke, you probably have a heart of oleomargarine. *