Monday, January 17, 2011

Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 by Garrison Keillor

This is the first Keillor I’ve read and I didn’t know what to expect. What I got was a well-crafted story with a bad ending about a fourteen-year-old boy named Gary growing up in a strict religious household in Minnesota, just beginning to spread his artistic wings.

According to the dust jacket, The Cleveland Plain Dealer says Keillor has a gift for treading “a line delicate as a cobweb between satire and sentiment,” and that gift really is one display in this novel.

By way of example, Gary’s life is filled with a crazy cast of characters—people both real in that puckered Midwestern Protestant kind of way, but who are also archetypes for the fear and doctrines many of them cling to. A great example is Gary’s Aunt Flo—yes, he actually calls her Aunt Flo—who is hypercritical of men and their ubiquitous secret shenanigans.

This is her great theme. All the Lake Wobegon men who got caught in adultery and never expected to. One after another, caught at the old game like a weasel in the moonlight, held up, dangling from the leg trap, and people cry Shame! Shame! And among the shamers is a man thinking, “Lucky for me that I covered my tracks. Nobody’ll ever find out.” And they sniff him out two weeks later, and tar and feather him and ride him around on a rail, and of the men carrying the rail, one thinks, “Good I burned those letters when I did.” Two weeks later, they find two unburnt letters addressed to Angel Eyes, and put him in stocks, and people throw dead fish and used fruit at him and buckets of slime and entrails, and one of the main hurlers thinks, “If I’m ever caught, which I won’t be, I’ll deny everything,” and two weeks later, he’s caught. He denies it, but they have found the pink garter, the hotel-room key, and he is made to walk around with a deceased pelican hanging around his neck, and the man who ties the pelican to him thinks, “I’ll call her and tell her I can’t meet her again until after this all blows over.” And two weeks later, he meets her, and when they are at a high pitch of excitement, suddenly red lights flash and two cops arrest him for gross indecency and drag him downtown, and one cop thinks, “I am the last person anyone would ever suspect of misdeeds.” And two weeks later, he stands up in the HiDeHo, wearing his fake beard and glasses, and he inserts the $10 bill in the dancer’s bodice, and feels the hand on his shoulder, and it’s his wife’s brother, who drags him home, where he sits in the dark basement and weeps for all the pain he has caused, and the wife’s brother is thinking, “I’ll meet Trixie tonight, as planned. Nothing to fear. We’ll go to Sauk Centre, where nobody knows us.”

There is so much that is so good here. It’s light and fun, sure it is, but it flows and the word choice is pitch perfect. It is masterful.

And so it goes. One after another. Each one dumber than the one ahead of him in the parade. Ping-Pong balls for brains! Pudding heads! She sits on the daybed and snorts. Mr. Hansen, that gilded idiot, who fell for the size 38-DD waitress at the Chatterbox and bought her a dozen tubes of crimson lipstick and promised her the moon and stars and inveigled her to accompany him to a truckers’ motel on Highway 10, and who should be parked in a booth at that very same motel coffeeshop but Hansen’s brother-in-law, eating a hot pork sandwich! He rose and collared the old goat before he could get his paws on the room key, and oh how the pitiful miscreant begged the brother-in-law to please look the other way. Oh, he was ten yards short of glory—oh, please please please, but no, he was hauled home and these was hell to pay and women yelling at him, How could you be so dirt stupid? He was in the doghouse for years! And yet—did that keep Clint Bunsen from flirting with the very same waitress? Sitting there drinking coffee and suggesting he show her Chicago. Show her Chicago! What is that supposed to mean? And him a former mayor and deacon of the Lutheran church. Didn’t stop him for one minute. And Mr. Hansen’s brother-in-law? He of the hot pork sandwich? Six months later, he pulled over by the Benton County sheriff for speeding; and sitting next to him was the reason for the his haste, a married woman from Kimball in a pink negligee with little fur puffs on the sleeves. The man returned home with his tail between his legs and had to sleep on the couch for six months and was made to take his dinner and go sit in the garage. And for what? A roll in the hay. A ride on the Ferris wheel. Wham bam, thank you, ma’am. For this they’re willing to give up everything? But that’s men. Men believe in their hearts that God will make an exception in their case and look the other way.

Yes, there’s humor here, plenty of it, humor and sentiment; but there is also satire, deep biting satire about what women think about men in their darkest hours, but also in that last line about darkness and light there is that fundamental truth on which those thoughts are based.

Gary is a young man, much like we would imagine Garrison at that age, just beginning the scratch the surface of what it means to be a writer. The deep meaning that hides under the surface of people and the choices they make is as seemingly opaque to Gary as it is initially to the reader. And Keillor’s ability to turn a phrase and his finely-honed comedic touch obscures these meanings even more, only poking through into our consciousness late in the novel, much in the same way it begins to manifest to Gary.

One pivotal scene comes during a visit to his Aunt Eva, a woman who raised him for a few years in his early childhood while he father served in the Army and his mother lived out east with him. Gary consistently has fond memories of his Aunt Eva, but sees her less and less as he grows older, until this day in his fourteenth year when she has guilted him enough that he goes to visit her.

I stood at the window waiting for my chance to escape. Grandma heisted herself up and headed for the biffy, and Eva said it again. If I thought you were going to forget all about me, I’d go upstairs right this minute and take that poison. She said she’d had a dream that I was grown up, wearing a very expensive suit and tie, walking in a crowd of strangers down a city street where she stood alone on the corner, hungry, lost, scared, and I walked right past her, not recognizing her, my own flesh and blood. She spoke my name and I turned and said, “Who are you?” And she ran away into the woods and the woods stood for her own death. “In the dream I knew I was about to die, and I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “I was happy to.”

And as she said it, I knew that the dream was real. That was exactly what was going to happen someday.

“What kind of poison?” I asked.


“Wouldn’t that be painful?”

“I don’t care. It’d be the last pain I’d ever have to suffer, and it couldn’t be anything like the pain of seeing people I love turn away from me.”

This seems intensely personal, and the reader is left with the impression that this is one of the most autobiographical parts of this obviously autobiographical novel. Gary’s reaction is predictable—he runs away from this smothering neediness—but it is also frustrating because Gary’s spirit is trapped, even as it yearns to be free.

I got on my bike with a big bag of tomatoes clutched in one arm and I kissed her goodbye and wheeled away and onto the paved road and down the hill and over the crick and I knew that if she took arsenic I didn’t want to be around or know anything about it or even attend the funeral. But Grandma looked good, her color was good, her mind was pretty sharp. If she could hold on for another ten years, then I’d be 24 and by that time a person knows what to do about these things. It was a fine day, no time to be thinking about funerals. I rode along no-handed, a talent common among tree toads I’m sure, and as I came to the first mailbox, I took a tomato out and threw it sidearm and missed, but I hit the big yellow sign with the curved arrow and went around the curve fast, still no hands on the handlebars, and hit the curve sign on the other side of the curve. The crowd of strangers in Aunt Eva’s dreams was a crowd of friends of mine in some city I hadn’t seen yet but would see and would be happy there. Yes! Happy! Strangers to her but dear friends to me. People who don’t sit around planning their funerals and complaining about the cost of butter nowadays and waiting for the Lord’s Return and agonizing over every light left burning in an empty room. My friends will be of another race entirely, a more joyful race, and I intend to be happy right along with them, and if you expect me to sit and weep and mope in the damp and gloom, you’ve got another thing coming, by God—and I hit the stop sign where the township road met the country road, splattered tomato all over, and missed one mailbox and then hit three in a row, for a record of six hits and two misses, and hit the RAIL ROAD CROSSING sign on both sides of the old Great Northern spur, and was coming in sight of town, up to the tree between the road and the swamp where Uncle Al had nailed the FOR ALL HAVE SINNED AND COME SHORT OF GLORY OF GOD sign—“Surely,” said Grandpa, “surely he has sense enough not to”—and Jesus looked down and said He believed I was going to hit it and of course He, being part of the triune God, was right—the big tomato made a lovely looping arc and splatted right between COME and SHORT and left a bright-red mark like blood, and now I was nine-and-two and the WELCOME TO LAKE WOBEGON was a cinch for No. 10 and the SLOW CHILDREN was No. 11 and just for the principle of the thing, I stopped to throw the last three tomatoes as high in the air as I could, to hear them hit the asphalt. If someone had come by and stopped and asked why I was wasting all those perfectly good tomatoes, I would have said, Because they’re my tomatoes and because it makes me HAPPY! Let’s hear it for Happiness! I’m h-a-p-p-y to throw t-o-m-a-t-o and a splanch and a splinch and a mighty spil-woshish. Grandpa turned away from the window, he couldn’t bear to see it. For somebody who was in heaven, he sure worried a lot.

It is revealed that Gary loves but doesn’t like many of the people in his family, his father perhaps most of all, who seems to epitomize the hand-wringing worry that he wants to leave behind for the happiness embraced in this tomato-throwing passage.

It is his older cousin Kate who is his true inspiration—a girl who seems to embrace life and its passions in a way that horrifies the rest of the family.

But Kate just laughed. “Darling,” she said to me, “I don’t intend to spend my life baking cookies and waxing the kitchen floor. These poor women! They think that, if they’re very quiet and smiley and keep their floors clean, everybody will like them. I am not a scrubwoman. I am an artist, my darling. So are you. Artists are put here to paint big strokes of color in a dull, gray world—and if some people prefer the dull, gray world, too bad for them. Don’t be a bump on a log. Wake up and die right.”

Kate is a wild girl, tap dancing on the edge of impropriety mostly for the rush of it but also for the joy that comes with creating such indignation among the others. She flirts and kisses and messes around with Gary from time to time, but it’s never very serious. She is attracted more to the latent spirit of the artist that she can see dwelling within him that she is to Gary himself. She dates an unpopular man, a local minor league ball player, someone from a family with scandalous troubles, and winds up pregnant by him and they decide to get married, partly to keep the peace and partly to better facilitate their escape from Minnesota. Her battles with her father are legendary.

On the front step she called him a name he hadn’t been called since his Army days. He cocked his arm as if he might wallop her and she called him one even worse. He let go. He cried, “Where did you ever learn words like those?”

She said, “I learned them by living! That’s how. I actually live life. Unlike some other people around here who I could name.”

And this is why Gary idolizes her. He wants to live, too, but he doesn’t have the daring or the wanderlust that Kate has. So he decides that writing will be his escape, his way of living a life of truth and passion the way Kate seems to. It may never get him out of Lake Wobegon, but even if it doesn’t, it will be the vehicle through which he leaves his childish conceptions of the world behind and becomes his own man.

I will write no more poems to please my teachers. I will write no more of boogers and farts to curry favor among cruel and callow. I will no longer toy with tornadoes and talking dogs and fatal blood diseases as if making a puppet show.

I will sit at the table with my family and write down their sighs, their little pleasures, their kind hearts, their faithfulness. In the face of sin and sorrow and the shadow of death itself, they do not neglect to wash to dishes.

Whatever happens, he decides, he will write it down.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

And, oh yeah, that awful ending. There’s an undercurrent of baseball and pubescent lust throughout the book. Gary gets a part-time job writing press clippings about the town’s minor league baseball team, whose star pitcher is the guy Kate hooks up with. And he’s constantly thinking about sex and secretly reading erotic comic books behind his schoolbooks. That business about Grandpa and Jesus looking down on him from heaven—that’s a humorous device Keillor uses to good effect to put Gary’s guilty conscience on display. He knows he shouldn’t think this way, but he can’t help it.

Well, at the end of the book Keillor oddly conflates these two things together, I think in an attempt to wrap them into a tight little narrative bundle. Gary goes to the ballpark after hours, strips off all his clothes and runs around in the field naked, his “pecker jouncing around like a jockey.”

A person walks around in a cotton envelope, it’s good to open yourself to the fresh air and reveal yourself to the universe. Here I am, all secrets known, all desires revealed, and I am not ashamed. Go ahead and turn on the lights, I refuse to cringe and run away.

I could imagine Ding Schoenecker in the dugout yelling, “Hey! You! Boy! What you think you’re doing?” Imagine Miss Lewis pale from shock and required smelling salts. Imagine the sister crying out, “See? I told you! Nobody believed me! So look for yourselves!” Imagine a story in the paper, BOY, 14, FOUND NUDE AT BALLPARK, HELD FOR OBSERVATION, PARENTS SAY HE “SEEMED NORMAL.” How could you do it? they said. Because it felt good. And because I am a writer and have to live life.

I get it. I get the point Keillor is making. That to be a writer, a writer has to put himself out there for all the world to see, that he has to live a real life and write about it, not about what he thinks life is from the cloister of his typewriter. But I have to say, as I was reading this scene, I wasn’t with Gary feeling his liberation. I was with his prudish sister, tsk-tsking him and telling him to grow up.

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