Garrison Keillor Short Fiction Analysis
Garrison Keillor’s upbringing in a small town in central Minnesota is the single greatest influence on his work. Many of the experiences and characters that appear in his short fiction are rooted in memories of events that happened to him there or of people whom he knew. In fact, the name for his radio show A Prairie Home Companion is taken from a cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota, called Prairie Home Lutheran Cemetery.
The theme of religion—specifically Christianity—is the most frequently explored concept in Keillor’s work. He has, in fact, described A Prairie Home Companion as “a gospel show.” Growing up, Keillor and his family were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant sect of Anglican dissenters that closely resembles the “fundamentalists” and the “Sanctified Brethren” in his published works. His upbringing was a conservative one, in which drinking, smoking, dancing, attending movies, and watching television were frowned upon; consequently Keillor writes with a conservative, instructional, and highly moral tone. A piece in one of his early books is entitled “Your Wedding and You: A Few Thoughts on Making It More Personally Rewarding, Shared by Reverend Bob Osman.” Here, Keillor offers, tongue in cheek, prudent advice and practical suggestions on how to tailor a wedding ceremony to fit the personalities of the bride and groom. A couple he calls Sam and Judy, for example, “chose to emphasize their mutual commitment to air and water quality, exchanging vows while chained to each other and to the plant gate of a major industrial polluter.”
Lake Wobegon stories
Throughout Lake Wobegon stories his writing, Keillor writes about ordinary events that evoke a natural piety, memento mori, along with an awareness of the transience of all things. His philosophy is consistent with the Christian doctrine that life is basically good. Some of the pieces, for example, offer metaphors for the Christian promise of eternal life. A quotation from “State Fair,” a piece that appears in Leaving Home, perhaps best illustrates this. In it, the narrator remembers riding the Ferris wheel as a child:We go up and I think of people I knew who are dead and I smell fall in the air, manure, corn dogs, and we drop down into blazing light and blaring music. Every summer I’m a little bigger, but riding the ferris wheel, I feel the same as ever, I feel eternal. The wheel carries us up high, high, high, and stops, and we sit swaying, creaking, in the dark, on the verge of death. Then the wheel brings me down to the ground. We get off and other people get on. Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not live it enough.
In other pieces, however, rebellion against his repressive upbringing surfaces in sarcasm, not all of it gentle or good-humored. The most notable example of this is an extended complaint, the “longest footnote in American fiction,” entitled “95 Theses 95,” which appears in Lake Wobegon Days. One of Keillor’s important themes here is righteous anger at how the Midwest has shaped him. Keillor uses the character Johnny Tollefson, a fictional, angry son, who returns to Lake Wobegon with a new wife from Boston, intent on nailing a set of written complaints about the repressive effects of putative parents and neighbors to the door of the Lutheran church, but “something in his upbringing made him afraid to pound holes in a good piece of wood.” So, instead, the treatise becomes “lost” on the overloaded desk of the town’s newspaper editor and ultimately appears as a footnote that spans twenty-three pages.
In this complaint, Keillor rails against religious strictures, fear of sexuality, fastidiousness, and his resultant ineptness at sustaining interpersonal relationships. A milder complaint is thesis 7, which states,You have taught me to fear strangers and their illicit designs, robbing me of easy companionship, making me a very suspicious friend. Even among those I know well, I continue to worry: what do they really mean by liking me?
These complaints become increasingly bitter; thesis 14, for example, states:You taught me to trust my own incompetence and even now won’t let me mash potatoes without your direct supervision. “Don’t run the mixer so fast that you get them all over,” you say, as if in my home, the walls are covered with big white lumps. I can’t mow a lawn or hang tinsel on a Christmas tree or paint a flat surface in your presence without you watching, worried, pointing out the unevenness.
Thesis 21 shows Keillor’s anger at having been brought up to feel guilty. “Suffering was its own reward, to be preferred to pleasure. As Lutherans, we viewed pleasure with suspicion. Birth control was never an issue with us. Nor was renunciation of pleasures of the flesh. We never enjoyed them in the first place.”
This is an imposing example of Keillor’s sarcasm, but it is just as important to bear in mind his knack for comedy, which is, ultimately, more prevalent in his work. With deliberate pacing and mild surprise, many of his stories are gentle, nostalgic, and quiet. Finally, he celebrates, rather than satirizes, the Sanctified Brethren. He believes that, despite ridiculous situations and smallness or meanness in certain people, “life is a comedy”...
(The entire section is 2196 words.)