Garrison Keillor, now on the New York scene, still has one foot in Lake Wobegon

MR. PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

November 17, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

New York -- Time is running short for Garrison Keillor this Wednesday evening. He's closeted in a small room behind an auditorium on the West Side where, in a few minutes, he's scheduled to give a reading from his new novel, "WLT: a Radio Romance." He's good-naturedly fending off questions from an out-of-town interviewer, talking about favorite topics like Minnesota and radio and writing for the New Yorker. There are interlopers popping in -- people coordinating the reading who are meeting him for the first time, as well as obviously impressed glad-handers who couldn't resist the temptation to meet Mr. Prairie Home Companion himself.

People are tugging at Mr. Keillor in all directions and he remains unflappable, somewhat aloof but not unpleasantly so. He breaks from the interview to meet three strangers, repeating their names as he gives a friendly smile. Then he comes back to the interview. Then it's time to go on stage.

Tall and courtly-looking in a gray suit with bright red tie, he strides to the microphone. One senses the few hundred or so people in the audience settling in comfortably, readying for the warm, reassuring feelings and gentle laughter they associate with his Lake Wobegon stories. Right away, he establishes the mood with his rich baritone and self-deprecating wit.

"I'm going to read some selections from my new novel," Mr. Keillor intones. He pauses for effect and continues dryly, "It's a cheesy story about rascally people who knew they were sinners and pretty much enjoyed it to the end."

The place breaks up. For the next 75 minutes, he tells about the rowdy souls who run this misbegotten Minneapolis radio station -- the gospel singers who pursue women and whiskey in a decidedly un-Christian manner; the practical jokers who take the pants off announcers reading the news; the lust-filled actors and actresses who cavort unabashedly off air when they are not spouting pious homilies about virtue and family in one sappy soap opera after another. It's a bravura performance, and he is rewarded with generous applause and, more important, frequent laughter.

"I try to entertain people, to invent and to surprise," he says

shortly before the reading. "The verb 'to entertain,' to serious people like ourselves, seems dismissive or trivial, a less noble verb than 'to inform' or 'to educate.'

"But it's very noble work and it doesn't always succeed. You always know when you've let the audience down. They come in expecting to feel really good, and you've given them used goods -- you've taken them around the block and they sit there with this vague sense of hopefulness instead of being amused."

This night, as in many others, people are clearly amused.

That's been the case since the New Yorker first accepted one of his humorous pieces in 1969. Mr. Keillor was a struggling 27-year-old writer from Anoka, Minn., longing desperately to be published in the same magazine of his boyhood idols -- James Thurber, A. J. Liebling, S. J. Perelman and E. B. White. The New Yorker soon took on more stories, and American humor has never been the same.

In 1974, after doing a piece on the Grand Ole Opry for the New Yorker, he came up with the idea of putting together his own radio show in St. Paul, Minn., where he was living. Thus began his hugely popular "Prairie Home Companion," which ran from 1974 to 1987 and convinced millions of Americans that the best way to spend Saturday nights was listening to this marvelous blend of arcane musical acts, storytellers, mock commercials and his own Lake Wobegon monologues.

"It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon," he would begin those pieces reassuringly, and he would speak with gentle good humor about the quirky but solid and earnest Scandinavian-Americans who lived in his fictional small Minnesota town. His latest weekly show, "The American Radio Company," which he has hosted since 1989, continues that eclectic mix of music and storytelling.

Though he frets that "I give much too much time to radio," he's also a best-selling writer. "Lake Wobegon Days," published in 1985, was an enormous success and introduced his stories to a whole new audience. "Leaving Home: a Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories" (1987) and "We Are Still Married" (1989) also were best sellers, as should be "WLT."

Making a mark in one area is tough enough; being as original and successful in two is extraordinary. Humorist Dave Barry, a friend and sometime guest on "The American Radio Company," is amazed at what Mr. Keillor has accomplished in his 49 years.

"I've been a fan of his for years and years, going back to his New Yorker pieces," Mr. Barry says. "I loved 'Lake Wobegon Days' and the 'Prairie Home Companion.' He's what I call an intelligent humorist, in the tradition of Calvin Trillin and Roy Blount. I'm a sophomoric, yuk-oriented humorist -- that's partly because I'm a newspaper columnist and partly because I'm an incredibly insecure person.

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