Good Thinking Meets Good Writing

by Harry Browne

March 5, 1998

(A review of Wobegon Boy by Garrison Keillor; Viking, $24.95.)

I have never been a fan of Garrison Keillor or his National Public Radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. Iíve considered him ó and it ó to be just too casual, too cool, too laid-back for my taste.

So I never would have thought of reading one of his novels if a magazine review of Wobegon Boy hadnít made the book seem so inviting I couldnít pass it up. And now, after reading Wobegon Boy, I canít wait to get my hands on Keillorís six other novels.

The current book is all of the following: funny, insightful, benevolent, easy to read, economical of words, clean, and instructive.

Consider the bookís opening paragraph, in which the narrator introduces himself and his parents:

I am a cheerful man, even in the dark, and itís all thanks to a good Lutheran mother. When I was a boy, if I came around looking glum and mopey she said, "Whatís the matter? Did the dog pee on your cinnamon toast?" and the thought of our old black mutt raising his hind leg in the pas de dog and peeing on toast made me giggle. I was a beanpole boy, and my hair was the color of wet straw. I loved to read adventure books and ride my bike and shoot baskets in the driveway and tell jokes. My dad, Byron, was a little edgy, expecting the worst, saving glass jars and paper clips, turning off lights and cranking down the thermostat to keep our family out of the poorhouse, but Mother was well composed, a true Lutheran, and taught me to Cheer up, Make yourself useful, Mind your manners, and above all, Donít feel sorry for yourself. In Minnesota, you learn to avoid self-pity as if it were poison ivy in the woods. Winter is not a personal experience; everyone else is as cold as you are; so donít complain about it too much. Even if your cinnamon toast gets peed on. It could be worse.

Already you have just about all you need to know about the narratorís mother and father, and a good deal about the narrator himself. As events unfold, the author can play off these characters without having to explain much more about them.

This economy of words and description continues throughout the book. When someone gives the narrator a CD, Keillor could have spent a page or two trying to describe the kind of music it contained. But one paragraph is all he needs. Referring to the albumís singer, whose picture was on the cover:

Loti looked to be about thirty, a slender BrŁnnhilde in jeans and a flaxen blouse, and there were endless thank-yous and acknowledgments, the sure sign of a New Age album. "Thank you Allan and Shondra for your strength and encouragement. . . . Thank you Shakti for being there. . . . That you Mufti for your faith in me. . . ." The list went on for two pages.

Lake Wobegon is the fictional Minnesota town from which Garrison Keillorís Prairie Home Companion broadcasts every Saturday. And it is the birthplace of John Toffelson, the narrator of Wobegon Boy. Raised with good Lutheran values, he goes to New York to find a career and, along the way, discover how the other half lives.

In the process he learns some valuable lessons. One is that you should stay away from business or investment ventures that are in areas you know nothing about.

And he learns a good deal about love. He recognizes that the frictions arising when two people live together can transform romance into resentment. But he also discovers ways of keeping romance alive. For example, on her wedding day a woman says to her groom, "Never get so angry at me that you canít remember how it was today."

Keillor sustains an entertaining, absorbing level for the bookís entire 300 pages. I consider it quite a tour de force.

So if youíd like to be entertained for five or six hours, learn a little about dealing with people, and observe a master writer at work, this is the book I recommend.

If the story has a message, it is that political correctness is inane ó especially the current cult of victimhood. The Wobegon boy comes across it in several quarters. Because of his upbringing, he easily sees through it. In one passage:

I toddled up to bed and switched on the old Philco, a radio Dad gave me for Christmas years ago, and there was a woman calling in, whose daughter created original silk-screen T-shirts, saying what a hard time talented people have in our society and they never get the recognition they deserve. A man called in to say he suffered from chronic leg cramps. "I donít think people realize what a rough time people have who donít quite qualify as handicapped. I mean, I have to park way at the other end of the lot even though my leg hurts like heck sometimes, so I canít attend as many athletic or cultural events as Iíd like because I never know if those leg cramps might kick in suddenly, and Iím just saying I wish there were a little more public understanding."

The host thanked him for his comments, and then a guy with a quiet whiny voice talked about how alone he felt in the world. Hey, I thought, the reason youíre alone is that people who know you donít like you that much. I thought of calling in and saying, "I wish there were more public understanding of guys like me. I like to walk around town in pink pants and lead my wolverine, Walt, on a leash and sing ĎWhistle While You Workí in falsetto, and I am hurting no one by this, but people look at me as if I were a monster. I have a responsible job and pay my taxes and keep my lawn mowed, but because I dare to be an individual, people whisper about me behind my back. Why is life like this?" But before I could reach for the phone, I fell asleep.

Some books use good writing in the service of delivering a message. Others deliver a message as a vehicle to show off good writing. (And, of course, most books do neither.) This one demonstrates how a message can advance a plot, make its point, and let you continue from there on your own. Even when putting down a trendy attitude, Garrison Keillor does it with sympathy and benevolence ó and he never belabors anything.

Ayn Rand could have learned a lot from him about delivering a message.

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