Love Me, by Garrison Keillor. Viking. 272 pages. $24.95.
Larry Wyler, the protagonist of Garrison Keillor's funny, bittersweet new novel, is a struggling writer who's bored to death with life in Minnesota and frustrated with his sensible, do-gooder wife - although he certainly seems to be handling it well.
Here, for instance, is his gracious reaction when a friend announces that he's just sold his new book to Random House.
"I wanted to choke him. I wanted to give him a swift kick where the sun don't shine. 'That's great,' I said. I wanted him to die a natural death but someplace where I could watch. 'When?' I said. 'In the fall,' he said. 'Terrific.' He sent me a copy, of course. Signed, 'To Larry, my friend and comrade.'
"I wanted him to choke on a bratwurst and fall down and hit his head so that he'd be in a wheelchair, steering it with a pencil between his teeth, and I could do a benefit for him, to raise money to pay for his colostomy, and he'd come up on stage to thank me, and sort of gurgle deep in his throat, and we'd be photographed together for the newspaper."
Yes, no bitterness there.
But then Wyler's own novel, Spacious Skies, becomes a best seller. Soon he's off to Manhattan - his wife, Iris, the Mother Teresa of St. Paul, stays behind - where he lives in a grand apartment and fulfills his childhood dream of working for The New Yorker. He even hangs out with renowned editor and wild man (who knew!) William Shawn, who takes him sailing and drinking and introduces him to a never-ending string of celebrity girlfriends.
But just like that Wyler develops the Mount Everest of all writer's blocks, and his next novel, Amber Waves of Grain, tanks so badly that "two weeks after publication, big stacks of it were on sale at Barnes & Noble for $1.89 and the security tags had been removed so as not to hinder shoplifters."
Thus begins the swift, boozy slide into a hack's existence, until Wyler is forced into writing a lowly newspaper advice column ("Ask Mr. Blue") to make ends meet.
Redemption comes when he accepts that New York has chewed him up and moves back to St. Paul, swears off the sauce, and attempts to reconcile with the sweet Iris, who's still busy wiping out every social ill afflicting mankind.
This is Keillor's first non-Lake-Wobegon fiction in 10 years, since the hysterical The Book of Guys, and it's an engaging look at how naked, burning ambition can unhinge even the most seemingly stable of individuals.
Most of all, it's a novel about success and failure, at least as they're defined by a middle-aged dreamer trying to make sense of a rough chapter in his life.
"In real life," Larry Wyler comes to realize, "you succeed and earn some money and then life kicks you in the pants and you learn about life, enough so that you figure out how to be happy, and then it's about time for the lights to come up and the credits to roll."
Kevin Cowherd is a features columnist for The Sun. He has written for the newspaper since 1981. His most recent collection of columns, Last Call at the 7-Eleven (Bancroft Press, $19.95), can be found in fine remainder bins everywhere