Archive for the ‘Garrison Keillor’ Category

I know next to nothing about Garrison Keillor.  Like many people though, when I hear his name there are certain word-associations.  A Prairie Home Companion.  Lake Wobegon.  Minnesota.

That’s about it.  But there were enough similarities between Keillor’s work and that of Stuart McLean, another radio presenter whose domestic yarns were spun into successful book sales and of whom I am a great fan, that I though it time I finally investigated for myself.  So, when I saw a copy of Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance by Garrison Keillor on the “New & Notables” shelf at my local library, I picked it up.  If nothing else, how could I resist such a quintessentially American author for the Orbis Terrarum challenge

Scandinavians have a reputation for being a little depressing.  Very little sunshine and daisies, lots of stark, dismal scenery and tall Nordic people being uncommunicative.  That heritage certainly comes through here and, though Keillor mocks the dreary outlook of his fellow Minnesotans, it does set the tone. 

The pilgrims of the title are twelve of Lake Wobegon’s finest who journey to Rome to visit the grave of a hometown boy who had died there during the Second World War.  Remembered as a hero by generations of school children, the truth about the young man’s less-than glorious (but rather more poignant) end is detailed as the novel progresses.  The trip was organized by, and the novel centers around, Marjorie Krebsbach, a middle-aged woman ready to shake up the monotony of her life and to figure out why exactly her husband has taken to sleeping in another room.  A typical enough mid-life crisis set-up but Marjorie is rather more fearless than most heroines of such stories.  She’s marvelous, actually.  Ethically I’m not sure I agree with all of her choices but I loved how fantastically decisive she was and her complete lack of guilt afterwards – what many writers would have turned into a source of internal angst, Keillor chalks up to life experience and proceeds on to other issues.  When Marjorie finds herself on her knees in a church, she prays not for her husband’s love or forgiveness or even for the return of the fortune she has unwittingly given away but for the existence of God (while studiously ignoring the other occupants of the church, a mafioso and his armed guards). 

Unfortunately, Keillor’s humour always seems a little off, as though you know he’s trying to make a gently mocking yet affectionate statement but it never quite comes off.  The only lines that truly amused me were the ones at Keillor’s expense – Gary Keillor is the 12th member of the pilgrims and the one providing the funding.  However, his fellow travelers don’t feel so indebted to him as to be polite and take care to remind him frequently that they either don’t like or don’t read his books.  Keillor makes fun of himself as well, remarking that “lack of social skills: that was what made him a writer.  Nothing to do with talent whatsoever”(p. 121). 

A book dealing with small-town Americans travelling in Europe is always guaranteed to mock them, even if just a little, but again, it didn’t quite work.  Yes, there were the grouchy men who didn’t want to leave the hotel.  And yes, the group decided to hit all the main tourist spots, accompanied by large cameras and loud voices, and to eat at an English-style pub with an English-language menu rather than walking a little farther to find something authentic.  The plain, simple Americans pale in comparison to their more worldly, polished Italian counterparts.  Most of this we see through Margie’s eyes – Margie who wants the glamour and romance of Rome, who wants to absorb and be absorbed by the city rather than stand out in it like a sore thumb.  Obviously, she does what any self-respecting tour group member would do and ditches her companions to explore by herself, exchanging the restraint of her townsfolk for the passion of the Romans.  Understandable, especially if you come from a place like Lake Wobegon, where “you worked from a small pool of appropriate partners and a man stepped in where the woman had signaled a vacancy and if she thought he was okay, not an incipient drunk or child molester, she didn’t dismiss him, which was the Lake Wobegon equivalent of falling love”(p.169).  Wouldn’t you jump too at the chance to flirt with handsome Italians in cafes?

In the end, everything works out (as though you ever had any doubt).  Mistakes are made and misunderstandings cleared up, good people prosper while less-than-good (but not bad, never that) people are thwarted, however incompetently.  The prose got increasingly sentimental towards the end though this reader did not – an awkward situation (there are very few writers whose flights of sentimentality I will tolerate without question, really only Alexander McCall Smith and Stuart McLean).  In the end, I was satisfied but not impressed by the story.  I’ve since been told that this is one of Keillor’s weaker offerings so perhaps I’ll go back one day and try one of his earlier works.  Probably not though – it was the style of writing that bothered me most here and I’m not terribly eager to wade through more of it.  I’ll stick to Stuart McLean’s far superior Vinyl Cafe stories.

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