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Book Review: Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Summer 1956

by Mark D. Johnson
January 4, 2002

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Keillor Unbound_Mark D. Johnson-Book Review: Garrison Keillor's <i>Lake Wobegon Summer 1956</i> It is not stated anywhere in the promotional material, but I think it’s a safe bet that Garrison Keillor’s latest novel, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, is semi-autobiographical, based on this evidence: it is told from the point of view of a near-sighted fourteen year old boy named Gary growing up in rural Minnesota with a developing interest in writing. Keillor turned fourteen in 1956, so it’s not hard to imagine that there is a lot of Garrison in the young “Gary,” and that may be a little discomforting to some of his fans who might not appreciate Gary’s secret obsession with sex.

When he was promoting his first novel, WLT: A Radio Romance, back in 1991, Keillor joked that he could not recommend his own book because it was “too blue.” Listeners of his popular radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, had grown accustomed to amusing wholesome yarns from his “News from Lake Wobegon” segments and previous books developed from those monologues. His audience was a comparatively straight-laced bunch, not expecting, or desiring, any sex from the keystrokes of Garrison Keillor. However, in Summer, he takes the so-called “bathroom humor” to new heights (or should I say depths?) which may put off some of those more sensitive readers. But I would implore the easily offended to lower their guard for this one and permit yourselves to laugh because this is funny stuff. Rarely is sexual humor written with such original wit. Besides, there’s a point to it all that may not be readily apparent. But more on this later.

The book includes much more than adolescent sex fantasies. Gary is a smart kid, socially awkward, the youngest of three kids in a religious family belonging to the strict “Sanctified Brethren” church. The summer of 1956 brings to him a typewriter and his first job as a writer covering the Lake Wobegon Whippets baseball team for the local paper. He spends his spare time cultivating the perfect lawn at his house, writing stories, and reading a small book called High School Orgies, from which we are treated to several cliché-ridden excerpts with numerous references to “her round orbs” and “his manhood.” He is fascinated with his older and rebellious cousin Kate, who yearns for an independent life away from Lake Wobegon and opens Gary's eyes to some of adulthood's mysteries. This lazy summer has Gary constantly observing those around him, a helpful trait for a young writer. Several of Gary's early writings are included, all of them hilarious examples of an earnest but unskilled writer.

Keillor’s writing is admirable, written with seemingly effortless humor and style. He is comfortable in straying from traditional narrative technique, and the freedom of his prose augments the sense of Gary’s summer freedom. Though it is told in the first person, we never really sense the adult Gary looking back on a memorable summer; we are instead transported to his state of mind as a teenager. This is something that Keillor cannot do through his radio monologues, though some of the book’s episodes evolved from them and may have a familiar ring to faithful listeners. Like his monologues, the book’s plot doesn’t have a lot of drama or action, but rather a pace that befits a small Midwestern town, where the folksy residents are the primary interest. While there is no shortage of nostalgic coming-of-age stories, this one has a freshness to it that makes it stand out.

Now back to sex. For many years now, stand-up comedians and sit-com writers have resorted to crude sex jokes for a cheap laugh. They can always rely on the less sophisticated to laugh at the mere mention of a naughty word. I don’t believe Keillor is simply going for cheap laughs in his novel’s ample sexual content, though it is indeed humorous. “The News from Lake Wobegon” has always portrayed polite and reserved Minnesotans as people who struggle internally with their emotions while they attempt to conform to acceptable social behavior. Beneath the religious fundamentalism that is the foundation of their moral code lie conflicted and anxious people who don’t exactly know how to handle life’s guilty pleasures. It is this characteristic of the folks in Lake Wobegon that makes them so endearing and with which many of us can identify. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Gary, as a teenage boy, thinks about sex a lot. It is as though Keillor has finally been freed to pursue this topic at length instead of through occasional innuendo. Like all good humorists, and we’re talking about one of the best in American history, Keillor tells us something about ourselves, shows us part of what makes us tick, and makes us laugh along the way. Though we laugh at the comical acts of Lake Wobegonians, we also laugh at ourselves. We are challenged to laugh at what makes us uncomfortable. Sex is a part of life, and like it or not, it’s a part of this very entertaining book. Highly recommended.

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