Analysis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Wobegon Boy is the ninth book by celebrated author and radio personality Garrison Keillor. To fans of his weekly two-hour public radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, he provides more of the same: humorous anecdotes about small-town midwesterners, probably based on real people he knew growing up in the small town of Anoka, Minnesota, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In Wobegon Boy, he takes these anecdotes and weaves them into a novel-length saga about a forty-something native of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, who takes a job as a radio station manager at a small college in upstate New York.
John Tollefson, Keillor’s protagonist, begins his narrative in Minneapolis, reminiscing about his childhood in Lake Wobegon. He was born to Lutheran parents, his father a “Dark” Lutheran, his mother a “Happy” Lutheran. According to John, the Dark Lutherans “believed in the utter depravity of man and separation from worldly things and strict adherence to the literal truth of Scripture,” while the Happy Lutherans “believed in splashing some water on babies and confirming the little kids and then not worrying about it, just come every Sunday and bring a hot dish.” John believes himself to be a Happy Lutheran. He sums up his mother’s teachings thus: “Cheer up, Make yourself useful, Mind your manners, and, above all, Don’t feel sorry for yourself.”
He graduated in history from the University of Minnesota and went east at the age of thirty to avoid marrying his college sweetheart. There, he got a job as a radio station manager at St. James College in Red Cliff, New York. According to John, St. James is popularly known as a charitable institution that services “financially gifted parents of academically challenged students.” Here, he functions peaceably for some ten years, settling in at St. James, establishing his preference for classical music on the radio, buying a home, and making friends with a local lawyer, Howard Freeman.
It is in Red Cliff, at his fortieth birthday bash, that he meets the love of his life, Alida, who happens to be Howard’s sister. Alida is a history professor at Columbia University, working on a book about an obscure Norwegian immigrant named Bolle Balestrand. John and Alida, who lives in New York City, establish a fairly comfortable relationship. They live apart during the week, each pursuing his or her own career, and spend their weekends together, alternately in the city at Alida’s apartment or in Red Cliff at John’s. They enjoy fine cuisine, which John prepares, and good wine. John, however, is growing tired of the single life and is beginning to think about marriage. Alida, on the other hand, who experienced the painful divorce of her parents, is in no hurry to tie the knot. She likes things just the way they are.
Despite his fairly upbeat long-distance romance with Alida, John’s life begins to fall apart. He and Howard sink their life savings into starting a farm restaurant, Gibbs Farm, which will serve fresh produce grown on the premises. The venture is fraught with problems, however, from the moment they hire a New Age contractor named Steve. Steve, it turns out, is an old friend of Howard. They met when they toured the country together in a circus (Howard was a mime). Steve has grandiose visions of turning Gibbs Farm into his magnum opus and spares no expense in its creation, much to the financial woe of John and Howard, who are threatened with bankruptcy.
Worse yet, John’s love of classical music is challenged at St. James when a new dean tries to force talk radio into the programming. At the same time, allegations of sexual harassment are made against John, who told a joke about a douche bag at a party and offended a female guest. John is called upon to answer for his actions but refuses to apologize.
A climax of sorts is reached when John’s taciturn father Byron dies, and John returns to Lake Wobegon to attend the funeral. There, he reunites with the rest of his family, which is quite a mixed bag. His mother, Mary, was the one who found his father dead, slumped on the basement...
(The entire section is 1677 words.)
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