I wish that I had an interview with Garrison Keillor to share with you today, on the eve of the launch of his new book, “The Keillor Reader” (Penguin). But a writer of his stature has people, whose jobs are devoted to checking in with his other people, the nearer ones who act as gatekeepers of his time. This phalanx of professional wheedlers and dodgers determined that, so sorry, but he is busy.
Respectfully, we might imagine that he is busy writing. We might even guess that this gent is simply sick of talking to people about his work. Fair enough. At age 71, with an enormous pile of pretty decent work behind him, he has earned the right to be busy, or not, as he pleases.
The helpful thing about “The Keillor Reader” is that it answers a number of questions we never had the chance to ask. The book is a compendium of sorts, including pieces Keillor wrote for the Atlantic, New Yorker, and of course some of what we presume are his favorite bits from the “News from Lake Wobegon.” With each piece is a preface in which Keillor explains what exactly he was thinking or doing when he wrote that one, with notes on influences and things going on in his life at the time, oftentimes unflattering or intimate (although, for what it’s worth, self-effacement is part of his schtick). Other notes explain the mechanics of writing and performing, or interactions with other artists he’s worked with over the years. It’s all pretty interesting, actually, in a how-the-sausage-is-made kind of way.
Cleans up good on the page
That News bit is sort of a singular work of American letters. Reading the polished, edited version in this book is one thing; he’s a very good storyteller and cleans up even better on the page. But watch the show live and you’re seeing an original story essentially told from memory, with the teller only occasionally glancing at notes as he wanders around the stage, even though, as we learn in this book, he wrote it just that same morning, after procrastinating long enough.
What other writer can do that? And still, that story is so complex and nuanced, with its insights into human nature and turns of phrase and plot twists, that those of us not yet 71 can only hope that we’ll be so sharp one day. Sometimes you can hear a stumble, as he tells the story just as he’s remembering the story he actually meant to tell, but now it’s too late. And he recovers neatly. “If you skid of course, don’t slow down; go in the direction of the skid,” he explains in the Reader. There are people who will dismiss the News as the nostalgic ramblings of an old fart, but those people aren’t paying attention. It’s something more.
“I’ve listened to the show for years, and grew up [in New Paltz, New York] with Pete Seeger and that whole storytelling-folk music tradition. But I wasn’t prepared for how fascinating it is to watch him live,” said Lisa Channer, associate professor of theater and dance at the University of Minnesota, and artistic director of Theatre Novi Most. “I was so impressed with how beautifully executed the whole show is, and how his presence takes it from a sort of family vaudeville entertainment to performance art. He’s like Laurie Anderson circa 1990s. He’s not an MC like you’re used to — a person onstage forcing you to watch them entertain you. He’s in his own creative world, rarely even acknowledging the audience, even as he’s very generous with the guests. You watch him the same way you watch Baryshnikov dance — there’s a ton of technique behind it, but it seems effortless.”
Keeps it fresh
Channer says her kids love the show, and credit goes to Keillor for staying relevant while working within a decrepit art form. He’s good about that, writing for the Internet, teaching young humorists at the University of Minnesota, and bringing hip young bands like Wilco and Neko Case onto the show.
And Keillor makes a point of mentoring young writers (and of remembering the writers who mentored him, including Allen Tate and James Wright at the U of M in the 1960s).
Shannon Olson, the author of “Welcome to My Planet” and “Children of God Go Bowling,” team-taught a humor-writing class with Keillor at the U and now teaches at St. Cloud State. “As it happens,” she said, “Garrison came up to St. Cloud State in March. We needed to raise money for our student literary journal, the Upper Mississippi Harvest, and he very generously agreed to do a show on campus with Rich Dworsky to support Harvest. He also spent an hour in the afternoon meeting with the English students, and they loved him. He told stories about being a young writer, and talked about the importance of narrative — how the world needs stories and people who know how to tell them well.
“I think what really appealed to them about Garrison’s work, and the stories he told that afternoon, is that they’re so human … so wonderfully specific and funny that they become universal, and manage to move across generations. I had my fiction students read and analyze the first chapter of ‘Pontoon’; that chapter details the life of a spunky old woman named Evelyn. The first line … reads, ‘Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.’
“After reading the chapter, one of my students, a guy about 21 years old who likes to smoke weed and skateboard, wrote, ‘As I finish reading this piece, I can feel the absence of her once fiery spirit, and find myself hoping to be more Evelyn-like in my life.'”
Keeps it modern
Radio theater may be dead, but Prairie Home Companion is not going gentle into that good night. An episode from last week isn’t the same as one from 1980, even if the show’s format is structured the same. Little details place the show firmly in the modern era. Sometimes it’s those little details that reveal why the audience you might think would appreciate old-time radio hate it (as many do).
Last year, during the News, Pastor Liz visited some of her parishioners at home, and they complained about all the usual things people complain about. But suddenly those complaints took a sharp and pointed turn toward Congress, as a parishioner suddenly shifted into a tear about guns and mass shootings in America. At that moment, clearly, Keillor stepped into the story, and then just as seamlessly stepped out to carry on. It was a monologue he delivered when the show was on tour in Texas.
Keillor makes no bones about being an unrepentant liberal, although he can be more than understanding and sympathetic to some on the other side, and poke at his own team as well. The Internet is curiously full of blog posts and Facebook rants that hinge on the phrase, “I hate Garrison Keillor,” including many quite vicious attacks by a supposedly younger liberal crowd, not just the usual public radio enemies. It would be interesting to get all those people in the same room. If that room were at the Fitzgerald on a Saturday night, some of them might even have a good time, to their surprise.
Tells what it’s like
The Reader is helpful with busting some of the suppositions that Keillor inspires. Does he paint Minnesotans as uptight? The Reader is stuffed with sex, both serious and humorous. One News reads like the plot of an Adam Sandler screenplay, complete with a young man parasailing over a lake with a hollowed-out bowling ball containing his grandmother’s ashes. Things go wrong: the swimsuit is ripped off, a boatful of drunken foreign visitors witnesses the whole thing before the boat capsizes. And he goes even further, with a pertinent detail that would earn this scene an X rating in Hollywood. (I won’t elaborate.)
You can hate his politics and still appreciate that he knows how to tell a tall tale with raunch and grace at the same time. You can cringe at his portrayal of Minnesotans as a people unable to express emotion, and still acknowledge that many of his characters show their hearts through their actions. If nothing else, his show has created a narrative over the decades about what it’s like to be from this place.
He preserves the memory of the way Midwestern small towns were before Walmart opened up on the edge of town and the Pretty Good Grocery went out of business and the Chatterbox Café became a Subway. He acknowledges the state’s changing demographics and our seesawing politics; even a master storyteller couldn’t make up Jesse Ventura (a gift to all humorists), the pathos of the end of the Paul Wellstone (when the show veered from its set format), the doofus dichotomy of Pawlenty and then Dayton.
He’s keeping a record in a society that races forward without thinking back. And if nothing else, how we vote says something about this state. In an essay for National Geographic, he talks about Minnesota’s landmarks, geography, people, the little things that he notices when he drives his daughter to school — and it’s his life story, lived in the same place we live. It’s familiar. He gets what it’s like to live here, at least one version of that story.
Maybe he’s right
Maybe “The Keillor Reader” is Keillor’s last book. Maybe it’s the one book among his 19 that sums up what the guy’s all about. Maybe he’s easier to read than to listen to (certainly he’s easier to read than to listen to singing). Maybe he really is busy, writing that one true thing that everyone will agree sums up what it’s like to be from this place, or to live here now. Maybe his version is so far off base that some other writer will be inspired to try his hand at describing the real Minnesota. Maybe that’s his intention, to goad us into proving him wrong. Or maybe he’s right. Is it such a bad thing to remember the past?
“When you die, it all goes with you — your stories, so vivid, the scenes of your colorful life, your fine education, the people you loved,” he writes. “Since I’m a writer I can’t help believing I can keep all that alive.”
We’ll see. A couple years ago, he thought he’d retire, but then he changed his mind. He now has no plans to retire, according to his people.