Garrison Keillor: Still at the Lake

November 23, 1997|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,Sun staff

"Wobegon Boy," by Garrison Keillor. Viking. 305 pages. $24.95.

Thomas Wolfe told us we can't go home again. Garrison Keillor knows the opposite is true: We can't ever really leave. Try as he might, and he has tried mightily enough to seek refuge in Denmark and New York City, Keillor keeps returning to Minnesota and Lake Wobegon, his fictional town that time forgot. This is a darker, less sentimental and surprisingly less satisfying trip than his previous journeys there - "Lake Wobegon Days," a popular novel, and "Leaving Home," a collection of essays patterned after the stories Keillor tells on his weekly radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion."

This time, Keillor has stepped aside for John Tollefson, the Wobegon boy of the title, and Tollefson's view of the old stomping grounds and kooky characters who reside there has more in common with another Minnesota author, Sinclair Lewis, than anything Keillor has written previously. Mired in a dead-end relationship, Tollefson bolts Lake Wobegon and its Babbitt-creating code of conduct: Think small. Mind your manners. Quit complaining, it could be worse.

Tollefson lands at St. James College in Red Cliff, N.Y., a liberal arts college that caters to the ""financially gifted parents of mediocre students." There, Tollefson manages WSJO, a public radio station, and he enjoys a sort of nice, king-sized mid-life crisis.

He responds by investing in a farm restaurant that will serve fresh garden vegetables grown outside the door (no writer has done more for a vegetable than Keillor has done for sweet corn). He battles a new dean who wants to change the radio station's format from classical to all-talk. And he falls in love with Alida Freeman, a Columbia University history professor at work on a book about a Norwegian immigrant who treated the nervous disorders of the famous with colonics and cold baths.

But Lake Wobegon hovers over everything. Tollefson hesitates to take Alida there. "I was afraid that after an hour in Lake Wobegon she'd know me all the way to the soles of my feet." He feared she would discover a place where "winter is just over with or winter is on the way again," a town that serves as "the world's headquarters of meekness," where the outside world is viewed with suspicion, "as a place where you send your money and nothing comes back."

Tollefson returns home, of course, reeled back like a northern pike on a hook, the first time to visit, the second to bury his father. Keillor, as always, captures perfectly the inane conversation at the Chatterbox Cafe, the sad and repetitive stories at the Sidetrack Tap, the stifling-yet-comfortable rhythms small-town life. Lake Wobegon is as real as the town you grew up in.

Unfortunately, and this is the book's largest flaw, John Tollefson isn't. Of all the classic Lake Wobegon characters, from Darlene to Carl Krebsbach to Clarence Bunsen, Tollefson is the least convincing. He drifts through the novel - bland, cold, passionate only about Alida (a much more interesting character). Co-workers conspire against him, and he feels bad but not for long. The restaurant falls through, and he feels angry, but does nothing about it. His father dies, and he feels sad, but not very. He just doesn't seem to care a whole lot about anything, and you find yourself not caring a whole lot about him. If Keillor is suggesting that this sort of personality paralysis is one of Lake Wobegon's legacies, then why are the people who stayed behind so much more human and interesting?

Keillor has long been one of our best storytellers, but this book occasionally lurches like a car without its steering wheel. Narrative threads that weave through the beginning - Tollefson's future at the radio station, the restaurant, his attempt to find a wealthy benefactor who supports opera music - fray and eventually disappear. The idea is to get back to Lake Wobegon. Once there, Keillor resorts to the comic sketches and stories that are so familiar to his radio listeners. Many are funny, but they are tossed in like an afterthought, a little something to keep the fans happy.

And they probably will. Keillor's eye remains fresh, his gift for description intact. Longtime Keillor watchers will enjoy debating which parts of Tollefson's life are fiction and which are the author's autobiography (there are some harsh comments about political correctness and public radio).

Keillor hauls out all his usual themes - love, death, longing. But the overall effect is like visiting your hometown after a long absence. You want to love it more than you do.

Ken Fuson, a staff writer for The Sun, was born and raised in Granger, Iowa, population 800, and has been a reporter for more than 20 years, much of that time with the Des Moines Register.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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