Love Me

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Garrison Keillor is one of the best-loved storytellers in the United States. His long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, is a unique contribution to American culture. The tale with which he wraps up each week’s show invariably features the human propensity to take oneself and one’s troubles too seriously and pokes gentle fun at it. The tone is always benevolent, compassionate, understanding, and it nudges one into laughing not only at the character in the story but at oneself as well. It is this compassionate voice that Keillor attempts to capture underneath the sometimes bawdy humor in Love Me. The voice is heard on two levels. The first is in the character Larry Wyler, a writer who enjoys success in New York but gets a bad case of writer’s block. He also loses the affections of his wife, Iris, and eventually has to return to Minnesota to rediscover the things that really matter in life. Parallel to Larry’s emotional journey are his own efforts as “Mr. Blue,” an advice columnist in a Minneapolis newspaper who dispenses last-ditch prescriptions to the emotionally wrung-out people who turn to him for help.

As an English major—English majors are a regular butt of humor in A Prairie Home Companion—Larry worships The New Yorker and, after many submissions, he finally gets the magazine to accept one of his stories. Also bolstered by the success of his first novel, Spacious Skies, Larry moves to Manhattan, buys a luxury apartment, and meets all the famous New Yorker writers he has so long admired. This New Yorker section of the novel is pure fantasy and farce. Wyler’s new friend Calvin Trillin, for example, gives him tips on how to handle a very unlikely sounding J. D. Salinger: “And if Jerry Salinger asks you to coauthor something with him, say no and be firm about it. That guy thinks up some new project every morning and gets people all excited and by five o’clock it’s deader than Mrs. Hurley’s dog.” A few minutes later, writer John Updike pops up with his golf clubs, inviting Larry to join him at the driving range, which apparently is on the navigation deck of the Staten Island ferry.

The most extended of these fantastic, never-in-a-million-years sketches is of William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987. In real life, Shawn was a shy, diffident man, and even those who worked with him for many years seemed to know little about his personal life. Keillor joyfully invents an extroverted Shawn who loves to play poker, smoke cigars, and drink whiskey. This Shawn is a womanizer with a special eye for actresses, an adventurer who shoots caribou from a raft on trips to Alaska’s whitewater. He is a blunt-spoken midwesterner who rails against “all those affected Harvard snots” and uses the infamous four-letter word that the real William Shawn, during his long reign at The New Yorker, would never allow to appear in the magazine’s pages.

This Shawn that never was takes a liking to Larry, whose career is taking a downturn. Larry’s second novel, Amber Waves of Grain, is a flop, and poor Larry becomes afflicted by writer’s block. Shawn gives him tips about how to write. The real Shawn was known as a meticulous and brilliant editor who always knew how to improve a piece of writing. No doubt he never said anything like what Keillor gives him to say—advice to college students, for example, to write something that would horrify E. B. White, New Yorker writer and collaborator with William Strunk, Jr., on the famous second edition of The Elements of Style (1959). In the midst of the rollicking humor, however, Keillor’s Shawn comes out with pointers that real-life writers might do well to note: “The Betterment of Man is the worst motive for writing. . . . Better to write out of sheer cussedness and heave a cherry bomb into the ladies’ latrine and make them all jump out of their camisoles than climb into the pulpit and pontificate about the meaning of it all.”

Keillor’s New Yorker joke develops further when it is revealed to Larry that the magazine is owned by a Mafia don named Tony Crossandotti. On his first encounter with Mr. Crossandotti, who carries a revolver around with him, Larry learns that one of the publisher’s methods of encouraging his...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)