Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"We're not normal people. We're just us."

from the Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2007

'Pontoon' by Garrison Keillor
The residents of Lake Wobegon struggle to rise above the terrible vicissitudes of their daily lives.
By Bernadette Murphy, Special to The Times

What is it about the works of Garrison Keillor that keeps readers and listeners coming back for more? It's maddeningly impossible for this reader to drive around town on a Saturday afternoon and not tune in to Keillor's radio show, even when I've heard the same tales (or variations of them) countless times before. Especially because I've heard them before.

Yet, for reasons that defy logic, Keillor's repetition of themes seems only to increase the joy that his tales of the salt-of-the-earth residents of Lake Wobegon, Minn., provide. In any given narrative, we may meet the Lutherans making tuna-noodle casserole to bring to a neighbor when someone's been hospitalized, or encounter the parish priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility planning next week's sermon, or witness the kids walking past the statue of the Unknown Norwegian on their way to baseball practice, or listen in as the ladies stop by the Chatterbox Cafe for some very non-Starbucks coffee and a bit of gossip.

Not much happens -- other than a few over-the-top adventures that seem slightly beside the point. What Keillor offers is a basic comfort, like ice cream. In his narratives, the things we hope are true about life are confirmed: Those who preach holier-than-thou homilies will fall on their face; the hardworking farmer and his hard-working wife will be rewarded, even if it's only in a smallish sort of way; and the kids of Lake Wobegon will grow up to be, if not what their parents dream of, at least decent human beings. Keillor's Minnesota is a place where money is not needed to buy happiness and a little backbone goes a long way.

"Pontoon," the newest of the Lake Wobegon novels, focuses on Evelyn, an elderly woman who in the opening pages is reading in bed when she's visited by the Angel of Death. "Not yet," Evelyn tells the angel. "I have to finish this book." The angel has heard the "not yet" line before and insists on taking her. Evelyn's daughter, Barbara, finds her mother's corpse the next day, and the tale is launched as Barbara learns all the things about Evelyn she didn't know, including the fact that her mother wished to be cremated in a green beaded evening gown, her ashes to be stashed inside a hollowed-out bowling ball and the ball itself deposited in the waters of Lake Wobegon, with no minister presiding. What will Evelyn's Lutheran community say? More alarming is the fact that, though Evelyn had been faithful in a loveless marriage for more than four decades, in later life she'd enjoyed a passionate affair with Raoul, a now-retired local television personality, taking romantic trips with him and acting as his partner in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, town gossip focuses on Debbie Detmer, a trouble maker who'd shunned her family and community 15 years earlier, taking off for California and making her fortune in Petaluma as an aromatherapy specialist working with pampered pets. "[A]fter the story appeared in People with a picture of Debbie in her white outfit and a grinning Tom Cruise [whose cat she'd tended], business boomed; she opened a branch in Westwood and another in Mountain View." Debbie is coming home to plan her wedding -- well, not a wedding, exactly, since her intended doesn't wish to be married. More of a commitment ceremony, with a gourmet menu -- massive shrimp kebabs, wheels of imported cheeses, French Champagne -- performed by her minister, Misty Taylor, of the Sisterhood of the Sacred Spirit, on a pontoon boat on Lake Wobegon.

Of course, visiting Danish Lutheran pastors (who've been sent to the U.S. as punishment for their liberal views) come to Lake Wobegon on the very day that Evelyn's bowling-ball-encased ashes are to be launched from her grandson's parasail, a flying Elvis is scheduled to drop in on the wedding, and a hot-air balloon prepares to take Debbie and her man into the clouds.

Ultimately, the ensuing chaos is less the point than the common sense of common people getting through daily life -- particularly how the people of Lake Wobegon build up little irritations toward one another and then resolve them. Barbara remembers her last conversation with her mother: "Why can't we sit and converse like normal people?" Barbara had asked at the start of a tiff. "We're not normal people," her mother replied, before taking leave of Barbara so as to avoid the quarrel. "Nobody is. We're just us."

And maybe that's Keillor's draw: For all the faux simplicity of his characters, a reader can't help but hope that he or she, too, is "just us" -- not typical, not generic, but very specific and down-to-earth and brimming with common sense. As Evelyn once told the school board when a resolution proposed mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance: "If you require me to go to church, then it's no longer faith, and when you make somebody pledge allegiance to a flag that stands for freedom -- you are just being stupid."

By reminding us of those things that are just stupid (and silly, and full of Keillor's hilarious invention), we let go of them, laugh at ourselves and our foibles and return to the common sense and courtesy we imagine -- we hope, we pray -- underlies the human condition.

Bernadette Murphy is the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting" and a co-author of "The Tao Gals' Guide to Real Estate."

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