Monday, January 02, 2006

Wobegon Boy

Garrison Keillor

“I’m a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it’s all thanks to a good Lutheran mother,” begins Keillor’s narrator, John Tollefson. It’s one of those First Sentences they talk about in writing workshops, the kind that pulls the reader into the narrative, and in retrospect the sentence truly encapsulates the gist of the novel.

Though the term is a little off, Tollefson is a mensch, a nice guy who is a bit of a loser. Director of a public radio station at a university in Syracuse (“WSJO—Public Radio for the Finger Lakes” (47)), he seems to be on the slow track rather than on any fast track. He’s missed the boat on the feminist wave that rushes around him. An intellectual, but one of the old-fashioned kind, he’s not one of the new-fangled guys that wants to flaunt silly theories in talk-radio. One of the terrific ironies of the book is that when he drives in his car, he often flips from the soothing classical music on his own station to W100, the “Folks Next Door” talk radio. One time, he listens to:
two guys discussing field markings discovered in nearby Troy Township, the corn flattened and the earth dig up in concentric circles, no footprints to be seen; was it a visit from outer space, or kids doing wheelies? They were taking calls from listeners. Interesting to consider, the possibility of aliens reconnoitering in upstate New York. You never hear this sort of news on public radio, just people with advanced degrees talking about the need for retraining in the Information Age. (125)

Tollefson knows he doesn’t fit but not why. One thing he does to correct his unease is revisit his hometown in Minnesota, Lake Wobegon. Early in the story, his friend at work, Texan business manager Marian MacKay asks him how long he plans to stay at the radio station. When he answers that he plans to stay around a long time, she says, “You remind me of that Sorry Mutha song, ‘Why Do You Try So Hard to Get What You Don’t Even Want?’” (10). So right then we know that while Tollefson may be cheerful about where he is, he is “in the dark” about being there.

He says of the people in Lake Wobegon (the Scandinavian-Midwestern folk): They are not “the warmest people you’d ever hope to meet. An embrace is rather intimate for us. A handshake goes a long way. Sometimes we just nod. We aren’t all that keen about scholarship; we believe that any display of learning is purely superficial, that nobody is smarter than anyone else. We can be surly and stubborn and downright ugly. We are people of fixed principles, who drive in the passing lane at exactly the speed limit and wonder why drivers are passing us on the right and shaking their fists at us” (63).

In other words, he learns about the special reserve of the Midwestern folk, how his own culture varies slightly from East-coast culture. Though it doesn’t prepare him for his father’s death (because nothing can prepare one for that), he is changed by that death. He doesn’t care so much when he loses his job—he’s almost happy to lose it. His lover, Alida, comes to the funeral, and they decide to marry.

I hate books that profess to be comic but which make me cry, but this one does; in fact, it’s pretty sentimental in a few places: dad’s death, the whole wedding thing. But it’s sort of a nice story, ala Garrison Keillor. Heart-warming, I hate to admit. The worst part, though, is the whole family tree sub-plot towards the end, about the Siamese (which should read conjoined) twins. The whole thing sounds like it’s completely plagiarized from the Farelly brothers film, Stuck on You—though a quick date check, frankly, makes me recant and politely suggest the reverse. Could it be that Bobby and Peter Farrelly have read this book? The plot about the conjoined twins is identical from the one twin hitting the bottle but the other getting the hangover, down to the part where the twins are separated but miserable ever after because they can’t walk in proper balance after the surgery. It’s uncanny!

Anyway, it’s a cute book—interesting because of its regionalism.

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