A Novel of Lake Wobegon
Viking/Penguin / 305 pages / $25.95
Not everyone finds Garrison Keillor and his Lake Wobegon series to be their cup of tea and Powdermilk Biscuits. But for those of us who grew up with the NPR radio serial A Prairie Home Companion, Lake Wobegon is a world apart - and much beloved.
Keillor has been spinning his yarns in his breathy-yet-sonorous voice for over 30 years on Saturday evenings on NPR. I still have my Powdermilk Biscuits T-shirt from college and recall sitting with my mother, a big fan of Lake Wobegon, and listening to an episode here and there when I visited. Even the cat seemed to enjoy it.
My mother was a child during World War II, in the days before TV, when radio serials captivated millions. I think Keillor and his little town with its quirky denizens caught many of my mother's generation in a web of nostalgia for the days when imagination was required, just like reading.
But I am very much of the TV generation. I had never heard a radio serial before A Prairie Home Companion, and while I might not have been seduced by the same things as my mother was by Keillor and his crew, seduced I was, nevertheless.
Keillor makes small-town life seem so ... redemptive. I've lived in small towns and know them to be anything but, and yet the fiction wrought by Keillor pulls at the same strings as an illustration by Norman Rockwell. We want that life, the one being spun before us out of fairy dust and lulling words and wonderful characterizations and eccentricities that don't involve guns or drugs or the truly unpleasant things that can happen when people have too many secrets and those secrets are revealed.
Over the years of his broadcasts, Keillor has put his tales into print for those who don't "do" radio. The effect is different, but just as engaging. His latest Lake Wobegon novel, Pontoon, is, in a word, delightful.
Not everything is peachy-keen and hunky-dory in Lake Wobegon, of course. That's what makes it special. In fact, Pontoon begins with the death of a key character, Evelyn Peterson, who at 82 is pretty chipper as most Lake Wobegoners are, and not one to let any moss grow under her feet, no sir. She was just out for some drinks and fun with the girls the night before she died, and the conversation turned to Viagra and how it isn't as good a thing as some might presume, particularly when one is on the receiving end.
Lake Wobegon is not, in case one should think so, a stick-in-the-mud sort of place.
One is tempted with a Keillor novel to quote. A lot. It's difficult not to. The language is, well, pretty darn perfect, and the turns of phrase as delicious as a Jersey peach in high summer. But that's the thing about a Lake Wobegon book - one really wants to share it, just like that peach. And reading it, one can hear the voice of Keillor languidly pulling back the shades of this house and that cottage, going into the storeroom here or the cafeteria there or out into a moonlit night here and there and even to the odd motel. One gets lulled by the descriptions and the music of the story. One gets swept up. One gets won over. One gets into the Lake Wobegon way.
"Evelyn was an insomniac, so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that."
First lines can make or break a novel. That one really sets the tone for Pontoon. Evelyn's daughter, Barbara, finds her mother dead and becomes rather hysterical, at first imagining murder and then, after a bit of the Kahlua-type drink she's taken to having day and night, in her coffee and not, becoming calmer. At least until the secrets begin to be revealed.
Who is Raoul? Why does Evelyn want to be cremated and have her ashes put inside a bowling ball dropped into Lake Wobegon? What other secrets was she keeping? How could Barbara not know? And what about the lovely fat man and Barbara's yearning and all the letters and the pontoon of the title and the day when Barbara's son tells her that he's dropping out of the university because of some alleged near-death experience on a highway and she drinks some of her drink and says to herself, "Don't scream. Don't yell. Don't wave your arms."...? See - you want to read it already, don't you? Then there's this luscious morsel of small-town iniquity: "Drinking ... had gotten Barbara out of teaching Vacation Bible school, which was good. She had hated that for years, teaching innocent little kids about Noah's Ark. The kids were doped up on chocolate, vibrating like hummingbirds, so they really didn't pay attention, and the science was transparently weak - a gene pool of one male and one female means monstrous inbreeding - and then there is the issue of genocide. Judy Ingqvist said, 'Yes, it's a hard story for children. So don't dwell on it.' So one year Barbara had God send snow and cold instead of rain and instead of an ark Moses built a fort and God gave him fire, which the wicked did not have and so they froze to death."
Wow. And that doesn't even take us to the wedding of Debbie Detmer, animal therapist to the stars (or as Barbara exclaims, mid-novel, "Oh for pity sakes - the woman puts Vap-O-Rub on cats!") with the reluctant fiance and the dreams of a perfect ceremony making everything in her tattered romance work, well, perfectly. And then there's the flying Elvis and the hot-air balloon and the Lutheran pastors from Denmark who are a little like the Jesuits in Voltaire's Candide, and Barbara fulfilling her mother's wishes and trying to strike out on her own and ...
Is Pontoon laugh-out-loud funny? No. But Keillor isn't Dave Barry. Spending time in Lake Wobegon is like spending time with Amy Sedaris and her stuffed squirrel pageants or imaginary boyfriend. The quirky and eccentric and even crazy begin to seem quite normal and cozy and familiar, while there's an underlying wit and a deadpan humor that is inescapable and just meant for sharing.
I never felt nostalgia for the old radio serials or for small-town life. But I feel that ache every time Keillor takes me to that mythical place in Minnesota peopled with folks just like my Scandinavian forebears. Pontoon is fun and engaging. Evelyn is a blast, some other Wobegoners are pills, and you just can't help rooting for Barbara. Pontoon is a small, perfect, unblemished peach of a book.
Victoria A. Brownworth teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940"