The Storming Bohemian Punks The Muse: 2021 Edition #1 – “Book Review: ‘That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life’ by Garrison Keillor”
Hello everybody, and hooray! It is 2021. And I will no longer be identifying these columns as “Covid Editions”—now that a new administration will be moving into the White House, I believe we can at last look forward. It may take awhile but the end is in sight.
So today’s column will have nothing on current events. Wheeee! Instead, I am inaugurating the year with a book review. I hope you’ll enjoy it. And, by the way, this marks my first review as a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle, an accomplishment of which I am happy to boast.
Book Review: ‘That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life’ by Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor has been a part of our American cultural landscape for nearly half a century. While not universally popular among the literary crowd, his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” has certainly been somewhere on the map for just about all of us. Who hasn’t heard of Lake Wobegon, home to Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility? Or chuckled at the description of a midwestern community where “. . . all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average?” Keillor’s gentle humor, with its hidden bite, its earthiness, and its unexpected focus on the taboo topics of death, sex, and religion (not to mention an ample supply of bathroom humor) is a unique contribution to American letters, often, and justly, compared to the humor of Mark Twain.
Love him or cringe (or both), his talent and originality demand recognition. Unfortunately, it is necessary in reviewing his memoir to reflect upon his fall from grace as a casualty of the “Me Too” movement: At the end of a decades long run with Minnesota Public Radio, Keillor was dismissed after a brief investigation following accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct. Not only did he lose his position, but his entire career was virtually erased, as if “A Prairie Home Companion” had never been. His university, he reports, took his picture down from their gallery of distinguished alumni. Invitations to speak at graduations and conventions disappeared. MPR reported they had done a full investigation and, without a detailed explanation, simply stated they felt they’d made the right decision.
Keillor devotes only five of three hundred and fifty three pages to recount that story. He does not defend or deny his behavior, although he does minimize it (and who knows but that he’s right). His vitriol is reserved for the manner of his dismissal rather than the fact of it. He speaks well of his accuser and imagines her version of events:
“She looks me in the eye and says, ‘You insulted and demeaned me but I was afraid you’d fire me and I needed the money so I feigned interest. I can never be the person I was. You hurt my soul, and I have a right to hurt you back.”
He concludes by saying, “I could see a rough justice behind it: all my life I’d used subterfuge to avoid uncomfortable situations, and it had worked, and now someone else’s subterfuge had dehorsed me.”
I do not know what to think of this sordid story, but I like the book (a lot) and I’m inclined to give the man the benefit of the doubt. If he doesn’t exactly apologize, he at least acknowledges a rough justice at work, and that’s good enough for me to retain an open mind and admire this excellent memoir.
And excellent it is.
He opens with an introductory poem which perfectly captures the style of what follows. I quote the last few lines:
And so I bent and smelled the roses
Which God intended, one supposes
And now as life slips away
Just as scripture said it would
I write this little book to say
Thank you. So far, so good.”
This gentle interweaving of life and death, pleasure and sorrow, gratitude and wry is typical of Keillor’s voice and he sustains it, almost perfectly, throughout all the chapters of his memoir.
Keillor, for all his humor, is never afraid to dig deep. One of his opening chapters reflects neither on his birth nor his ancestors, but on his own approaching death as he imagines his burial in the Keillor family cemetery where “they’ll wrap me in a sheet…and plant me with my aunts and uncles on whom the stories of Lake Wobegon were based.”
His anecdotes and stories seem to drop endlessly and effortlessly with an astonishing economy, in spite of his famous gift for circumlocution. This, for example, while describing the family cemetery:
“Dad’s cousin Joe Loucks is here, who drowned in the Rum River in 1927: a dozen boys formed a human chain into the river to rescue him and he slipped from their grasp. Now they are here too.”
In his descriptions of his early life, there is a remarkable amount of reflection on death and dying, as he remembers the often hard life of the Plymouth Brethren community in which he was raised. His descriptions of this rather obscure religious cult are full of graceful humor and kind regard, but there is a steely resentment underneath and you can clearly catch the harshness, bigotry, and small mindedness that was as much a part of that community as the beautiful music and the close family ties.
As he moves on to describe his gradual intellectual awakening under the guidance of his high school teachers, he captures his adolescent urge to escape small town life.
As the memoir continues, he makes great hay out of a central paradox in the story: he escaped small town life by putting it on the radio and built his reputation with fictionalized stories making gentle fun (and sometimes not so gentle if you read between the lines) of his rural youth. His escape tied him ever more closely to his roots.
As with all great humorists, there is a core of anger at the stupidity of the world and a sense that he is fighting fiercely for dignity against the odds.
And what a strange dignity it is! He composes limericks, sometimes slipping in filthy puns and jokes for those with ears to hear. He creates “The Lives of the Cowboys” skits which often rely on the coarsest imaginable bathroom humor. Then mixes this with performances by some of the leading musical stars of high culture from symphonic soloists, to Metropolitan opera stars, to folk music royalty. He drags them through the ditches of low humor and makes them like it. You can sense that he is laughing up his sleeve (he makes no secret of this) but it’s all done with such gentle grace that, if you’re like me, anyway, you can’t help but be charmed.
This audacious mix of high-brow and low makes for great entertainment. But there is more here than hijinks and anecdotes. Keillor has a great gift for self-reflection, and in the final chapters of the book, as he looks back over the story of his life, now winding down in a kind of cultural exile, his clear-sighted self-assessment is moving and impressive.
Keillor’s “That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life” reads like a mashup between “The Confessions of St. Augustine” and an episode of The Three Stooges, told to the accompaniment of a blue grass band of banjos and high lonesome wails. Plus limericks, and perhaps a kazoo ensemble.
I loved it.