Fiascos and Fun in Lake Wobegon

‘Liberty’ Takes a Lighthearted Look at Small-Town Patriotism

Posted September 30, 2008 at 3:22pm

Garrison Keillor’s latest book, “Liberty,” is a welcome relief in grim times — particularly for readers who are big fans of Keillor’s Midwestern matter-of-factness and portraits of small-town life.

“Liberty” is a pleasant journey back home, a cup of coffee at the Chatterbox Cafe, with all the familiar characters and places. It’s “A Prairie Home Companion” writ larger. Even the place names still elicit a laugh — Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, Art’s Baits & Night O’ Rest Motel. We’ve been there.

The premise of Keillor’s latest romp is whether Clint Bunsen, auto shop owner and restless husband, makes a run for Congress. What makes this opening possible is a hilarious situation, with obvious references to the Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) fiasco:

“A week ago the Honorable John ‘Smilin’ Jack’ S. Olson had sidled up to a man standing at a urinal in a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and asked him to dance. ‘Let’s you and me and your puppy dog boogie,’ he said, according to men at nearby urinals. Olson then cried, ‘Wheeeee!’ and grabbed the man by the wrists and attempted to twirl him. He made lascivious thrusting movements with his pelvis. A bystander captured the scene on his cell phone. The congressman was arrested for lewd behavior. His office claimed he was suffering from a mood swing caused by the use of the steroid prednisone, and he flew to New Zealand on a fact-finding mission to the kiwi industry. A week later, after other urinal incidents had come to light, all involving an offer to dance, he tearfully resigned.”

Readers who don’t laugh out loud at this description need to take a deep breath and take up a hobby that doesn’t involve C-SPAN.

Meanwhile, poor Bunsen is undergoing a midlife crisis of big-city proportions, involving a youngish woman somewhat implausibly eager to seduce this sad sack. And yet he’s seriously considering running for Congress, based in part on what he sees as his expertise in running Lake Wobegon’s annual Fourth of July parade. He also figures, in a kind of abstract way, that he could do as good a job as any bozo in Washington, D.C., doing the job now.

The result is not so much a story of one of Minnesota’s good citizens running for office as it is a portrait of small-town grudges and petty rivalries, more GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin than New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Which, of course, is where the humor comes in. Take, for example, this description:

“The Bunsen house was still known as the Huber house to older Wobegonians, having been owned by former Mist County sheriff Walt Huber who ran for Congress in 1958, a Democrat, and he lost after it was revealed he once vacationed in Paris with his wife Lavonne.”

In the end, Bunsen has the good sense to realize that he doesn’t have the ferocity needed to run for Congress. And in the end, Keillor comes close to spoiling this lighthearted tale with a suggestion of violence that comes a little too close to dark reality.

An angry wife waving a loaded gun just isn’t funny anymore, if it ever was. The story line is better when Keillor sticks to descriptions of things like the national church ushers’ competition, where ushers from Lake Wobegon Lutheran had gone to compete and it was like “herding fruit bats and water buffalo.”

But there’s enough here to take anyone’s mind off real-life partisan politics and a growing financial crisis. A Statue of Liberty who wears nothing under her robe. A living flag made up of Lake Wobegonians wearing moldy smelling baseball caps. A hilarious episode in which Bunsen, who’s mistakenly told he’s half-Hispanic, tries to squeeze into too-tight white pants with gold buttons, an embroidered jacket and a sombrero.

Apart from the welcome humor, what’s notable here is that it’s truly hard to figure out how Keillor managed to find the time to write a book like this, however light.

Keillor, best known for his “Prairie Home Companion” radio program, is also the host of a popular daily item on American Public Media (broadcast on National Public Radio), called “The Writer’s Almanac.” In it, Keillor recounts items from literary lore from that day in history — days that writers were born or where something momentous, like, say, the Norman Conquest, happened — and then reads a poem. He may have done more for poetry in recent years than any number of poetry slams.

Keillor’s been doing these Lake Wobegon books for years — “Homegrown Democrat” and “Daddy’s Girl” have recently made the best-seller lists — and now we’ve got one more from the land where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.