Dionysus' mid-life crisis


THE BOOK OF GUYS. By Garrison Keillor. Viking. 340 pages. $22.

ATTENTION, men who are baffled in perceiving just what women in the 1990s regard as acceptable male-to-female conduct: "The Book of Guys" looks in a fun-house mirror and sees much wit and even some male self-recognition.

CGarrison Keillor's 21 short stories will offer women few if any new clues to the male psyche. And that should cheer men who've always found that women's knowledge of them is uncannily accurate, with or without Cosmopolitan or Redbook.

It might be interesting if Mr. Keillor's stories were read and discussed by loving couples, to share the humor, exaggerations, occasional poems and bittersweet truths. They shouldn't miss the preface's recounting of a meeting of a fictional club devoted to male bonding:

One guy says he's long sought "to keep women happy, and they're madder at me now than they were before I started trying so hard . . ." Says another: "We carry adolescence around in our bodies all our lives . . . then we try to become caring men, good husbands . . . [Still,] monogamy to a man is like a bear riding a bicycle." And: "Stricken with middle age, full of loneliness . . . we do something spectacularly dumb, like run away with Amber the cocktail waitress."

The stories use conjecture and imagination in exploring each sex's frequent misunderstandings of the other. Some retell relationships that predate "feminism" and "male chauvinism." Here's the author's version of Mozart's Don Giovanni assuring his friend Figaro: "Marriage is an enormous drain on a man's time and energy, it produces continual deficits, it reduces him to silliness and servility, it is the deathbed of romance."

In wedlock a man loses his freedom, the Don adds, since the "woman takes over a man's life and turns it to her own ends . . . Married, a man cannot come home too late, nor can he still have two or three terrific lovers who visit when you invite them and stay about the right length of time."

Having used opera as a source, Mr. Keillor also calls on Greek mythology in relating "The Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus." This god of wine and revelry, upon reaching a deity's equivalent of middle age, is urged by his wife Ariadne to attend fewer feasts and orgies or to see a therapist. Dionysus concludes that Ariadne is ++ yet another unsettling example of "the knowingness of women."

Although these tales may demonstrate that some males regard female companionship as an alternating current, and that marriages may be jolted or wrecked by male restiveness, relationships are marred by many other problems.

"Lonesome Shorty" is a cowboy who values his freedom on the range but finally gets bored, rides into town and buys a condo. Then neighbors nail him for violating the anti-yodeling ordinance, and he rides back home to the range. "A guy can't live with people and he can't live without them," says Shorty.

Mr. Keillor's book is uneven. But many of its stories bristle with candor and painful truths. As the author has demonstrated in his long-running public radio series, people everywhere share foibles, strengths and aspirations.

Lawrence Freeny is a Baltimore writer.

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