Garrison Keillor is best known as the host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a weekly two-hour radio show that originated in 1974 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is now available on many National Public Radio affiliates. This broadcast has brought Keillor’s humor to a national audience, which delights in his weekly stories of past and present in his mythical hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, “the town that time forgot.” His other popular creations include advertisements for mythical products and businesses, such as Powdermilk Biscuits, which “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done,” the Fearmonger’s Shoppe, “serving your phobia needs,” and Bertha’s Kitty Boutique “In the Dales.” These and other inventions, including poems of Margaret Haskins Durber, “the poet laureate of Lake Wobegon,” can be heard on two long-playing recordings: A Prairie Home Companion Anniversary Album (1980) and The Family Radio (1982). Keillor’s radio humor depends to a great extent on his voice and his delivery. For the reader conditioned by Keillor’s homey, sincere, almost nostalgic radio voice, it is difficult and somewhat unnerving to enter into the many-voiced stories of Happy to Be Here, a collection of pieces which first appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere between 1969 and 1981. Once the transition is made, however, the reader will be delighted.
In his introduction and in many of the pieces, Keillor pays homage to The New Yorker and its writers, especially James Thurber and S. J. Perelman. Like these and other of The New Yorker humorists, Keillor enjoys playing with language. He is not above including a letter in disguised verse among those in the mailbag in his parody of military action stories, “Mission to Mandala,” nor is he above naming a character “Gloria Mundi” in “Your Transit Commission,” or using a “multipun” title such as “The Lowliest Bush a Purple Sage Would Be.”
Keillor most resembles Thurber when he reminisces, perhaps about his own childhood, as in “Drowning 1954,” a first-person story of a man who, as a boy, pretended to attend swimming lessons, felt damned because he had deceived his parents, and then felt saved when he learned to swim by himself. “Nana Hami Ba Reba” may remind readers of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” when the apparent parody of “high-tech” science fiction ends with the narrator “materializing” in a present-day middle-class home in time to dine with his family. “The Drunkard’s Sunday” recalls Thurber’s more melancholy pieces, such as “The Evening’s at Seven”: the drunkard moves from a despairing vision of his ruin to a manic hope that he will fully realize the life he seems already to have, only to return again to despair and the fear that he will lose everything.
Keillor pays his respects to Perelman most clearly when he parodies verbal styles, especially those of advertising and popularized social science. In “Your Transit Commission,” he parodies the rhetoric of “friendly” bureaucracies as they appeal to selected markets. Joggers can ride a bus with seats in the center aisle and a track around them. Those who wish to escape the “old linear idea that has imprisoned transit” may find themselves someday on the Freedom Bus, which when it is “almost there,” becomes a surprise all-day excursion to some local attraction. In this way, the transit commission becomes “more than just a transit commission. It is a total urban transit delivery system.” Keillor repeatedly pricks such jargon. In “Around the Horne,” baseball-coach-turned-sportswriter Ed Farr applies self-awareness therapy, not very successfully, to his losing baseball team. In “The New Baseball,” holistic jargon and futurology meet to transform baseball: “In time . . . the entire stadium setup will become useless as spectators are drawn into the playing area. . . . This will lead to the disappearance of ballplayers as a performing elite.” In “Plainfolks,” Tom Wolfe and Studs Terkel are echoed, if not parodied, when high schoolers apply oral history and folklore techniques to the popular culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The language of popular anthropology suffers in “Oya Life These Days,” the account of a “tribe” which sets at naught most of the tools of social science by behaving like participant-observers. Parody of verbal styles is perhaps Keillor’s comic tool of choice. Some other targets include the rhetoric of minority liberation movements in “Shy Rights: Why Not Pretty Soon?” of military-industrial-complex lobbyists in “Re the Tower Project,” of pollster reports in “How It Was in America a Week Ago Tuesday,” of food faddists in “The People’s Shopper” (which ends with a visionary conversion to junk food) and of country and western music lyrics as an advertising gimmick in “The Slim Graves Show.”
While virtually every piece in the collection is good for a laugh, no mean accomplishment, several pieces stand out because of their extended development or because they offer some substance which adds...
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