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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Being a Garrison Keillor fan is a bit like having an especially obscure hobby: You're slightly reluctant to talk about it with strangers, because you suspect they'll ask a lot of questions, look a bit baffled by your answers, and decide you're a little weird. But run into a fellow devotee and you both burst into big, unseemly grins. Ah, you've walked the streets of Lake Wobegon like I have, you've tasted lemon meringue pie at the Chatterbox Cafe. You know Garrison like I know Garrison. Little more need be said.
Those who love Keillor — those who revel in his sly wit, his understated brand of humor — really love him. They don't miss his weekly radio show, which features old-fashioned musical acts, goofy skits with strictly G-rated humor, and the show's pièce de résistance, The News from Lake Wobegon. Narrated by Keillor in his offbeat, hypnotic style, it's always a lovingly recounted, seemingly aimless story about the self-conscious, self-deprecating residents of a mythic Minnesota town called Lake Wobegon.
Fans no doubt are already rejoicing over the release of Wobegon Boy, Keillor's first Lake Wobegon book in 10 years. Once again, Keillor meticulously conjures the delightfully quirky, smaller-than-life town of Lake Wobegon. Anyone who loves old-fashioned storytelling will set one foot in this book and drift into paradise.
Our Wobegon boy is John Tollefson, who first appeared in the 1985 novel Lake WobegonDays, an affable, middle-aged man born and bred in the depths of Lake Wobegon and half-heartedly trying to escape the 'thinksmall'ethos it instilled in him. He's been languishing in Minneapolis for 10 years, hanging on to a girl he has no intention of marrying. When she finally leaves him, he musters the momentum to get out of town and talks his way into a job managing a new radio station in upstate New York at St. James College, 'a place where you can pack off your SPASM child (Simply Pray And Send Money) and feel that, barring a felony conviction, he or she will get to wear a black gown and attend graduation....' The dean ruefully guides John through the school's untrammeled library, commenting: 'You could romp naked in periodicals and copulate on the carpet, and the librarians would be grateful if, after climax, you took down a magazine and thumbed through it.'
So John buys a nice house, settles into his cushy job, and tries to prove he's a fun-loving guy by throwing parties where he serves roasted leg of lamb and makes his guests sing 'Up in the Air, Junior Birdmen' on the patio. Then he meets an enchanting woman, a professor from New York City, and he immediately dumps Jean, his pleasant librarian girlfriend — the type of girl any self-respecting Lake Wobegon male would let himself settle for in a sigh. His commuter romance with Alida is full of passion and intelligence and surprisingly free of conflict. But when Alida goes to Copenhagen for the summer to do research for her book on an obscure Norwegian Renaissance man named Bolle Balestrand, John finds himself contemplating the bland allures of his former flame Jean. As penance for having such promiscuous thoughts — and to banish them from his brain — he boards a plane for Lake Wobegon, and our fun begins. Lake Wobegon is a town of ordinary folk who have been molded to within an inch of their lives by Lutheran doctrine: Fear the worst, avoid self-pity, make yourself useful, and always wash your hands before you eat. It's a town where you buy your food at Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery and say your prayers at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. Days of 30-degree-below-zero temperatures are regarded as punishment deserved.
Wobegon people are not so much fun to be with necessarily, you know. Not the warmest people you'd ever hope to meet. An embrace is rather intimate for us. A handshake goes a long way. Sometimes we just nod. We aren't all that keen about scholarship; we believe that any display of learning is purely superficial, that nobody is smarter than anyone else. We can be surly and stubborn and downright ugly. We are people of fixed principles, who drive in the passing lane at exactly the speed limit and wonder why drivers are passing us on the right and shaking their fists at us.
John's family is an amalgam of odd souls. His father, Byron, is a crazy old bat whose junk collection has taken over most of the house and who insists the sweet corn grown by Uncle Ernie is one of life's four pleasures (his mother is a gentle, profoundly indulgent woman). Caution is Byron's middle name: When he served as scoutmaster for John's Boy Scout camping trips, he would wake the boys with a vigorous shake during the night to make sure they weren't dead. Brother Ronnie got mixed up with a religious cult that funneled drugs into the U.S. from a nudist colony in Ecuador, and spent four years in prison. Sister Diane, who describes herself as a 'recovering Lutheran,' says being held hostage for two days in a robbery helped her realize her emotional captivity. Then there's Mildred, John's favorite aunt, the demure head cashier at the Lake Wobegon bank, who became known as 'Light-Fingered Mildred' when she ran off to Buenos Aires with a load of ill-gotten cash. The misadventures of these and dozens of other characters are nuggets of pure joy — hilarious, poignant, and recounted in delicious detail while the plot lazily works its way around them. John's visits back home — a death in the family brings him back a few months later — help him decide to take his life in a new direction. A happy ending is in store, and Keillor leaves his characters poised for a sequel. Keillor has sketched the landscape of Wobegon Boy with subtlety and charm. The merest twist of a phrase, the tiniest details, reveal all. Keillor has the capacity to make us laugh and feel touched at the same time, and he can get away with writing that's so tenderhearted we might roll our eyes if anyone but he offered it up. His characters are so gently rendered — ridiculous but never ridiculed — that we feel free to laugh with abandon, and we laugh until we recognize our own frailties and neuroses in them. Reading Wobegon Boy is like tasting an ear of sweet corn plucked right from Uncle Ernie's farm: refreshing, sweet, and satisfying. — Jennifer Greenstein