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:
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:
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:
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.