With Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, author and radio personality Garrison Keillor once more mines the rich lode of his fictional small town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. His weekly two-hour radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, has entertained listeners all over the country for decades with a variety of music and skits, including a segment on the “news” from Lake Wobegon. In addition, Keillor has published several novels—two of them best-sellers—about “the little town that time forgot.” Unfortunately, this particular effort falls short of what most readers have come to expect from one of the funniest writers in America.
This time out, the story centers seemingly on Keillor himself when he was fourteen years old, during the summer of 1956 when he began to realize his dream of becoming a writer. Gary’s lofty ambition to write for The New Yorker, however, collides with his reality: His first professional writing assignment is as sportswriter for the Lake Wobegon Whippets baseball games. Furthermore, Gary is a typical adolescent boy with the typical adolescent obsessions: sex, sports, and rock and roll, in that order. He fantasizes constantly, often about his seventeen-year-old cousin Kate, with whom he is smitten. He also reveres the local pop music group, the Doo Dads, who seem to stand for everything his family thinks is wrong with the world.
Gary’s emerging sexuality conflicts with his ultrafundamentalist Christian upbringing. Unlike most of the residents of Lake Wobegon, who are either German Catholic or Norwegian Lutheran, Gary’s family are members of a small Protestant sect who call themselves the Sanctified Brethren. One of the most important aspects of this sect, at least for adolescent Gary, is that his family does not own a television set. This conflict between sexuality and spirituality is a major theme of the novel, as seen in its opening pages: Gary is reposing on a warm June evening on the screened porch of his family home. He appears to be readingFoxe’s Book of Martyrs, the classic work of Tudor Protestant propaganda, but is in actuality being titillated by a copy of High School Orgies, a magazine he borrowed from his best friend, Leonard Larsen, and has tucked inside the Book of Martyrs. His sister catches a peek and threatens to tell their mother, which sends Gary into a paroxysm of guilt. This vivid visual imagery symbolizes a fundamental conflict of many Lake Wobegonians, whose stern, religious façade often hides a more emotional, human, spirit. Like Gary’s copy of High School Orgies, the characters’ true natures have a way of showing themselves at awkward moments.
Gary reveres his mother, thinks his father is a penny-pinching old stick-in-the-mud, and squabbles incessantly with his born-again older sister, who is referred to simply as “the sister.” Their fight over whose turn it is to dry the dishes defines their relationship. Although the story line tends to meander in Keillor’s trademark fashion, it is marked by several events. It turns out that Gary’s temporary job as sportswriter was arranged by his uncle, who wants Gary to keep an eye on his errant cousin Kate. She is dating the Whippets’ nineteen-year-old rookie pitcher, Roger Guppy. Gary, however, is smitten with Kate and refuses to play ball, so to speak. Kate ends up getting pregnant by Roger, with all the attendant hubbub such an event would create in small-town America in the 1950’s. A subplot involves the Doo Dads, led by Roger’s older brother, who has adopted the pseudonym of Jim Dandy. Their performance at the Lake Wobegon Fourth of July celebration is a high point of the novel. Finally, Gary arrives at some insights into what it means to be a writer.
As with most of Keillor’s stories, the charm is not necessarily in the ending but rather in the telling. Sadly, Keillor’s teenage protagonist is hardly endearing. Not only does Keillor describe in great detail Gary’s adolescent yearnings but he also...
(The entire section is 1637 words.)