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Church on Saturday Night: Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion


ISSUE:  Winter 2001

The program begins with music at five o’clock Central Time on Saturday evenings, and music makes up nearly half the two-hour show. The first words to come out of Garrison Keillor’s mouth at the start of his weekly public radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, are song lyrics: “It’s Saturday an’/the band is playin’/Honey, could you ask for more?” Later Keillor and others will sing a few bluegrass and early rock and roll numbers. As part of the comic illusion that he and singer Lynn Peterson are working up a repertoire of duets suitable for baptisms and funerals, they will perform an old gospel song called “Where Could I Go (But to the Lord)?” Keillor will lead the audience in a sing-along of traditional hymns and patriotic songs. Joined by regular members of the cast, he will perform in several comic skits and commercials. He will tell us, for example, that Powdermilk Biscuits have the power to make shy persons bold. Midway through the show, Keillor will read announcements submitted by members of the audience in St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre: “Congratulations, Brad, from Jay and Disa: You’re an uncle now”; “Tim and Kristen say, “Don’t worry, Mom, we’ll be there for your birthday”“; “Happy fifty-fifth anniversary to Mother and Daddy from your children—all eight of us.”

There is, in each week’s program, the proverbial moment that everyone has been waiting for. It comes about 90 minutes into the show when Keillor says, “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town.” With no script or prompter before him, Keillor simply talks the 20-minute monologue that follows. The seeming artlessness of his delivery is wonderfully studied: Keillor writes a rough draft of what he wants to say during the week leading up to each show. (Indeed, despite the on-air, tongue-in-cheek credit he gives to writers like Sandy Beach, Sarah Bellum, and Warren Peace, he writes as much as 95 percent of A Prairie Home Companion himself.) Keillor reads through his draft of the week’s “News From Lake Wobegon” a couple of times before going on stage, then delivers it as if it were occurring to him on the spot, a perfect blend of spontaneity and careful preparation. The audience wants to believe that “I’m just walking out there and making up stuff for them,” Keillor says, “telling them a story that I just thought of.” As far as he is concerned, however, “it’s not the job of an entertainer to have a moment of revelation on stage, but to create them for other people.”

On this show Keillor tells about going to the Minnesota State Fair with his family as a boy, “a loud place with bad food and stink, music and sex blaring—listen, it’s gorgeous.” One year his Uncle Earl saw an ad for a baking contest at the fair and entered his wife Myrna, who was famous for her chocolate angel food cake. (“To call it devil’s food would give Satan encouragement, so we didn’t.”) Earl overcame Myrna’s reluctance to cook in front of a lot of people by telling her that the winner would surely be asked to say something, a perfect opportunity “to give that Scripture recipe: “Take four cups of I Corinthians 13 and three cups of Ephesians 4:32. . . .” After the bake-off was over (the judge was drunk and Myrna lost), Keillor rode the ferns wheel. “Every summer I’m a little bigger,” he says, “but riding the ferris wheel, I feel the same as ever, I feel eternal. . . . The wheel carries us up high, high, and stops, and we sit swaying, creaking, in the dark, on the verge of death. . . . This is my vision: little kids holding on to their daddy’s hand, and he is me. He looks down on them with love and buys them another corn dog. They are worried they will lose him, they hang on to his leg with one hand, eat with the other. The vision is unbearably wonderful. We get off and other people get on. Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”

It’s ten minutes until seven now. “News,” which sometimes runs long and sometimes runs (a little) short, has hit its 20-minute mark exactly. Some members of the audience, having heard what they came to hear, head for the exits. On stage, there is just enough time left for a mock public service announcement by the American Duct Tape Council, in which a New Age supermodel breathlessly recounts how she hangs long strands of duct tape from her living room ceiling to add “cosmic verticality” and also to catch flies. The program ends with a Keillor-Lynn Peterson duet (this one designed for second marriages) of “When I Dream of You (Maybe Someday You Will Come True).”

II

Sounds like a church service, doesn’t it? Protestant, to be sure, and unless one wants to count Powdermilk Biscuits as the bread of communion, noneucharistic as well, but a kind of church service nonetheless. The people assemble weekly both in the hall and around their radios. Musicians on stage take the place of choir and organist, with the audience often invited to join in the singing. The messages and greetings that Keillor reads midway through the program are not unlike church announcements, letting people know how others in the gathered family are doing. All this culminates in good Protestant style with Keillor’s sermon, er, monologue, which sounds like it is being born in the pulpit but actually is well prepared and even lasts the prescribed 20 minutes. “All comedy is preaching,” Keillor has said, “but it can’t show its hand.” As for the particular brand of preaching and worship that A Prairie Home Companion represents, “Our show down deep in its heart is a gospel show.” Don’t even let the late Saturday afternoon starting time throw you: the leading trend in Christian churches today is away from formal, Sunday morning worship and toward loose, contemporary services on Saturday night. And, of course, in churches as in St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre, a lot fewer people are there when the final hymn is sung than during the sermon.

The church-like quality of the program that Garrison Keillor has been doing nationally on public radio since 1980 should come as no surprise. Coming to terms with Christianity—what he believes and how to weave those beliefs into the fabric of his being—has been a great theme, perhaps the great theme of Keillor’s life.

III

Keillor was born Gary Edward Keillor in 1942 and grew up during the postwar years in two then-rural, now-suburban Minnesota towns, Anoka and Brooklyn Park, just northwest of Minneapolis. He was the third of Grace and John Keillor’s six children. John worked as a railway clerk and a freelance carpenter; Grace did everything at home. Two seeds that would grow into prolifically fruit-bearing trees were planted early in Garrison Keillor’s life, one of them by him and the other by his family.

The seed Gary planted, entirely under his own steam and with no encouragement from his parents, was writing. From a very young age, Keillor was a loner who intensely valued his own privacy but was fascinated by other people and coveted their admiration. He started newspapers at both of the elementary schools he attended and wrote most of the articles himself. In junior high he published some poems in his school’s literary magazine. This was “at a time when boys didn’t write poetry,” Keillor says, so he published them under the name Garrison, “a name that means strength and “don’t give me a hard time about this.”” Soon afterward, he found a copy of The New Yorker at the public library. It struck him as “a fabulous sight, an immense glittering ocean liner off the coast of Minnesota.” “I can’t imagine a kid who loved to read and had thoughts of writing not looking at this [magazine] in wonder and admiration,” he recalled many years later in an interview with Roy Blount, Jr. While other boys hid copies of Playboy in their room between the mattress and the box springs, Keillor smuggled home The New Yorker. “My people weren’t much for literature,” he says, “and they were dead set against conspicuous wealth, so a magazine in which classy paragraphs marched down the aisle between columns of diamond necklaces and French cognacs was not a magazine they welcomed into their homes.” He still has the first copy he ever bought, a 1957 issue with a short story by John Cheever and articles by A.J. Leibling, Richard Rovere, and Wolcott Gibbs.

Keillor’s people—his parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—were Plymouth Brethren, members of a loose affiliation of small congregations that had originated in a rebellion against the pomp and worldliness of the established church in early 19th-century England. Dancing, card-playing, drinking, smoking, and, as soon as they came along, movies and television were forbidden. Radio, for some reason, was okay, which meant that the Keillors spent a lot of time in front of the radio. Because a priesthood of believers took the place of ordained clergy in Brethren congregations, their lengthy Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night meetings consisted of songs, spontaneous prayers, words of inspiration and admonition from whichever of the men felt moved to offer them, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Keillor did not need to show The New Yorker to his parents to know that they would despise the value it placed on wit and worldly success. They had already told him that his decision to publish his schoolboy poems was “a shame on the family.”

Coming-of-age stories like Keillor’s typically follow a well-mapped trajectory: the small town Midwestern boy throws off the provincial or fundamentalist (in Keillor’s case, provincial and fundamentalist) strictures of his upbringing, heads for the big city, and embraces all things secular and cosmopolitan. Certainly, Keillor listed in that direction. At the University of Minnesota in the 1960’s, he grew a beard and long hair, wore granny glasses, worked as a DJ at the campus and public radio stations, and spent almost all of his time writing and editing the university’s monthly student literary magazine, the Ivory Tower. He turned the front section of the magazine in a “Talk of the Town”-style direction, complete with a sardonic, all-knowing, first-person-plural narrator—Eustace Tilley goes Mid-western. The first article he wrote as editor of the Ivory Tower berated the university’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ for bringing in “One of America’s Leading Illusionists. . .the Story of How the Man Who’s Never Been Fooled By a Magician Found the Reality in Christianity.” What would Campus Crusade’s next act of “charlatan Christianity” be, Keillor wondered. How about a child evangelist, or “Bob “Big Gunner” Verrell, Former Major League Baseball Star Who Found Christ in the Outfield of Yankee Stadium”?

In 1966, after graduating with a B. A. in English, Keillor hitchhiked east to interview for jobs at The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. Although neither panned out, he continued to barrage the editors with submissions. In short order, he connected with both magazines. The Atlantic ran one of Keillor’s poems in a “Young Poets” section in 1968. Two years later he placed the first of what would turn out to be dozens of humor pieces in The New Yorker before leaving the magazine in protest when Vanity Fair’s Tina Brown was hired as editor in 1992. “Local Family Keeps Son Happy,” which ran in the Sept.18, 1970, issue, was a deadpan parody of small-city newspaper feature writing. It chirpily described how “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Shepard of 1417 Swallow Lane” had hired a live-in prostitute named Dorothy in hopes of keeping their teenage son home at night. “In addition to her other duties, Dorothy also cooks breakfast.” The article concluded with her recipe for “fancy eggs.”

What Keillor never did, however, was turn his back on the faith of his youth. “I believe the same as when I was young,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. Asked in an interview for the Wittenberg Door whether he was “born again,” he answered: “Absolutely.” The seed of faith that his parents and the Brethren had planted took root as firmly as the literary seed he had planted himself. To the extent that Keillor rejected their dour attitudes toward smoking, drinking, dancing, literature, and the joys of this world, he did so because such bans were without Biblical foundation and therefore were unworthy of what fundamentalists profess to believe. What was left of fundamentalism, he felt, was lovely as well as true. “People who didn’t grow up in a religious background, it’s the strictures that interest them the most,” says Keillor. “But that’s only part of the story: great love within the group of people who are as closely bound together by faith as the fundamentalists were, and other small religious sects; tremendous affection and a kindness and generosity for other members of the group.”

Storytelling was another aspect of the fundamentalist family and community in which Keillor grew up. Absent television, books, newspapers, and movies, “our entertainment was talk.” Keillor’s great uncle, Lew Powell, was an especially good storyteller: appropriately, Keillor dedicated his audiotape collection News from Lake Wobegon to Uncle Lew rather than one of his written works. So was Keillor’s father, whose voice Keillor says sometimes seems to be coming out of his own mouth when he tells stories. Not just the family, but the larger Brethren community was aware that Jesus was the ultimate conveyer of truth through stories. At church and at church suppers, “These people were wonderful storytellers, and the purpose of their stories was to imbue us with compassion.”

In the 1960’s, Keillor found the Brethren to be as counter-cultural as anyone on the left. “They were sort of subversive in a way,” he said. “Most of them did not believe in getting on in the world. Most of them were failures out of Christian principle. Most of them felt that this world, the world in which you “make it, ” was not the real world.” Keillor was—and still is—especially drawn to the evangelists who would come through town or preach on the radio. In 1985 he went out of his way to heap praise on Jimmy Swaggart, at a time when Swaggart was wildly controversial. “They are the rock-and-rollers of the Church,” Keillor told The Door. “Evangelists are supposed to get out there and shake it. . . . [Their] one simple job is to shake people loose from their illusions. . .to look us straight in the eye and say, “Whatever you are doing doesn’t matter. None of your illusions matter. There is only one thing that matters.”” What Keillor can’t stand is a liberal clergyman giving “well-crafted sermons” instead of saying “something that the Spirit has put in his heart to say. . . . We don’t go to church to hear lectures on ethical behavior, we go to look at the mysteries.”

Yet over the years Keillor, without substantially changing his beliefs, has experienced with appreciation other branches of Christianity. In 1990 he joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church, a mainline Protestant denomination. (Most people assume that Keillor grew up Lutheran, since he talks so much about the Lutherans of Lake Wobegon, They also assume his ancestry is Norwegian—it’s Scottish.) He attended Holy Apostles Episcopal Church in New York and found that “when we stood for prayers, bringing slowly to mind the goodness and poverty of our lives, it brought tears to your eyes, the simple way Episcopalians pray.” Most conspicuously, he has always viewed Roman Catholics with wide-eyed awe. “Everything we [Brethren] did was plain and simple,” he wrote in his 1985 book Lake Wobegon Days, “but they were regal and gorgeous, especially on the Feast Day of St. Francis, which they did right out in the open, a feast for the eyes. Cows, horses, some pigs, right out there on the church lawn. The turmoil, animals bellowing and barking and clucking and cats scheming how to escape. . . . I wasn’t allowed inside Our Lady [of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church], of course, but if the Blessing of the Animals on the Feast Day of St. Francis was any indication, Lord, I didn’t know but what they had elephants in there and acrobats.”

Curiously, not going to church at all was Keillor’s response to his rising celebrity during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Although he has always considered himself “a writer who is temporarily a performer,” Keillor has gone from triumph to triumph in radio. From 1969 to 1982, he hosted a variety of public radio programs in Minnesota that gained him a large regional following for their blend of live and recorded music, dramatic serials, comedy skits, mock commercials, and greetings and announcements. He had quickly tired of “what passed for art on radio: cueing up Schubert and pronouncing him “Shoebear.”” Toward the end of that period, in 1980, Keillor’s Saturday evening program went national. He got the name Prairie Home from a cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota, and chose it for the show because it suggests that “radio is your companion as we head toward our ultimate prairie home.” In 1985, the now clean-shaven Keillor was featured on the cover of Time as “Author and Radio Bard.” It was at about this time, he says, that “I stopped going [to church]. I felt like a Pharisee. I felt conspicuous. Most of the people in the congregation knew who I was. They would stare at me and say to themselves, “Oh, look! It’s so wonderful—a semi-famous man goes to our church every Sunday.”“

Keillor felt eyes staring at him all the time after he became a national figure. The Time cover prompted the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers to treat him like a celebrity. His salary, his ending of a longtime romance, and his marriage to Ulla Skaerved, a Danish exchange student at Keillor’s high school whom he fell in love with after their 25th class reunion in 1985—all became fodder for the media. Keillor said the local newspapers covered him as if he were “a cross between Joan Collins and Watergate.” Finally, “when I came home and found a picture of my house in the paper, the address and everything, I thought to myself, I can’t really live here.” Keillor ended the radio show in June 1987 and moved to Denmark with his new wife. “It seems pretty clear. . .,” he wrote in a letter to the St. Paul newspaper, “that the Pioneer Press is going to take an aggressive interest in my personal life as long as I stay here . . .so I choose to leave.”

Keillor’s self-imposed exile did not last long. After less than two years in Denmark, he divorced Skaerved and returned to the United States to live in New York. He wrote Talk of the Town pieces as a staff writer for The New Yorker and launched a new public radio program called the American. Radio Company of the Air. Keillor designed the program to be A Prairie Home Companion with a New York accent, but within a few months it had become a virtual clone of the earlier show. “I started out the first season assuming that listeners wanted to hear me talk about New York,” he said at the end of the second season. “Maybe some of them did, but an awful lot of them wrote in to say, “Thank you, that’s enough.” They wanted Lake Wobegon, so I changed and went back to that.” In 1993 he returned home to Minnesota and restored the show’s original name.

IV

Lake Wobegon is not Eden before the Fall, although the tag line Keillor always appends to his weekly monologue can mislead the casual listener into thinking it is. “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon,” he says, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” The abundance of the vegetable gardens, the traffic light “which is almost always green,” Adams Hill (which Keillor as a young boy thought was where God created Adam), and even the impossibility, because of surveying errors, of finding Lake Wobegon on the map contribute to this illusion. Adam and Eve did not need a calendar in Eden and neither, it often seems, do Myrtle and Florian Krebsbach or the regulars at Wally’s Sidetrack Tap. Keillor’s first novel, Lake Wobegon Days, is organized cyclically rather than chronologically, like the Christian liturgical year in which every Advent is pretty much like every other Advent. The novel begins in Summer, then runs through Fall, Winter, Spring, and back again to Summer, with incidents from the distant past and the recent past sprinkled throughout its accounts of life in Lake Wobegon during each season.

Look closely, though, and the comparison between Lake Wobegon and prelapsarian Eden becomes more complicated. Indeed, during the first few years of A Prairie Home Companion, before the show went national, Keillor usually portrayed the town as the opposite of paradise. Lake Wobegon was the butt of his satirical gibes at small-town provincialism; by his own account, Keillor saw himself as a kind of latter-day Sinclair Lewis. (Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, which became Gopher Prairie in Main Street.) Lake Wobegon first appeared on the broadcast in 1974, as the setting for mock commercials advertising an outfit called Jack’s Auto Repair. Keillor says he did not know enough about cars to keep the gag going, so he had Jack branch out into Jack’s School of Thought, Jack’s Dry Goods Emporium, Jack’s Scraps for Dogs, Jack’s Toast House, and Raul’s Warm Car Service from Jack’s, among other enterprises. Jack’s eventually disappeared from the show, but Keillor has always included segments that play on the humor intrinsic to what Judith Yaross Lee has called “the basic clash between commercial rhetoric and unmarketable products.”

In 1976 Keillor began doing ersatz public service announcements about upcoming events in Lake Wobegon. Listeners were invited to “Visitors’ Day,” for example, but were cautioned to “behave yourselves and not stare at anybody and don’t point.’Cause there’s a lot of people in Lake Wobegon who don’t care for visitors or Visitors’ Day—who refer to it as V.D., as a matter of fact.” At about the same time he began reading letters to home from Barbara Ann Bunsen, a Lake Wobegonian who had moved to Minneapolis after graduating from high school. The letters mixed weekly reassurances that “Everything is just fine, I am all right, so don’t worry, everything is o.k.” with disconcerting news about her latest “alternative living experiment.” In the course of 70 letters spread over five years, Keillor began to populate Lake Wobegon, starting with Barbara Ann’s parents, Clarence and Arlene Bunsen.

During the early 1980’s, Keillor made the transition from letters and public service announcements to extended stories about the Bunsens (not just Clarence and Arlene, but brother Clint and his wife Irene), the Tollefsons (including Johnny Tollefson, a sometime stand-in for the young Gary Keillor), the Lutheran church (Pastor Ingqvist) and the Catholic church (Father Emil), the happily antisocial Norwegian bachelor farmers, the Sons of Knute Lodge, the Chatterbox Cafe, Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, and dozens of other characters, places, groups, and rituals in Lake Wobegon. “News” now meant accounts of what was going on in townspeople’s lives rather than a schedule of the town’s events. At the same time, Keillor’s tone shifted from mockery to affection. “I. . .veered away from satire and started being more interested in sentiment and, to some extent, bathos,” he said in 1985. The gentle story of Lake Wobegonians at the state fair—the cake-baking contest and the ferris wheel— exemplifies this turn.

Lovely as Lake Wobegon has become over the course of its quarter-century history on A Prairie Home Companion, Keillor has kept the town dark enough to maintain the tension that comedy requires. The name itself is a mixed message: it has a sort of Native American nobility but is also a homonym of the English word that means “woeful” or “disconsolate.” Similar incongruities run through Keillor’s description of the town in Lake Wobegon Days. “The sun[’s]. . . shimmering lights across the water” of the lake “would make quite a picture if you had the right lens, which nobody in this town does.” Lake Wobegon “has few scenic wonders such as towering pines,” but it does have “some fine people of whom some are over six feet tall.” The town was founded by pioneers, but they were all peculiar in one way or another: a Unitarian missionary who received a vision to “go west and convert the Indians to Christianity by the means of interpretive dance,” a poet whose 648-line epic about Lake Wobegon foundered on desperate rhymes such as “sybilline/ porcupine” and “cereal/immaterial,” and a small band of Norwegian fishermen who settled by (and settled for) the lake only after discovering firsthand that their impression of the Dakota Territory as a good place to fish was mistaken. The motto of Lake Wobegon is equally ambiguous: Sumus Quod Sumus, We are what we are.

Nothing conveys the chiaroscuro quality of the town better than the chapter in Lake Wobegon Days called “News.” The top half of each page in the 25-page chapter is a light and affectionate account of Lake Wobegon’s weekly newspaper, the Herald-Star, which was named by its owner, Harold Starr. The lower half of each page consists of a chapter-long footnote, written by an expatriate who moved to California and consisting of 95 THESES 95 that he had hoped the Herald-Star would publish. (Needless to say, the editor, whose first principle of journalism is “I have to live here, too, you know,” chose not to print them.) The theses are a devastating account of Lake Wobegon’s boring, trivial, hypocritical, and soul-destroying effect on the lives of at least some of those who grow up there:

3. You have subjected me to endless, boring talk about weather, regularity, back problems, and whether something happened in 1938 or 1939. . . .

4. You have taught me to worship a god who is exactly like you, who shares your thinking exactly, who is going to slap me one if I don’t straighten out fast. . . .

16. You have provided me with poor male role models. . . men who clung to tiny grudges for decades and were devoted to vanity, horsefeathers, small potatoes—not travel but the rites of trunk-loading and map-reading and gas mileage; not faith but the Building Committee; not love but supper. . . .

29. You taught me not to be “unusual” for fear of what the neighbors would say. . . . We knew they’d talk, because we always talked about them. . . .

75. I wasted years in diametrical opposition, thinking you were completely mistaken, and wound up living a life based more on yours than if I’d stayed home. . . .

V

The stained-glass word for stories is parables. The ones Jesus told were about ordinary people in ordinary situations who lived long ago in a small and remote corner of the world. People have been hearing those stories and seeking meaning in them ever since. Not surprisingly, in view of Keillor’s deep knowledge of the Bible and his love of story, some of these parables have found their way into his work. None recurs in more variations than the story of the Prodigal Son.

Keillor is anything but formulaic: in his fiction, he does not tell stories in which a younger son takes his inheritance to the big city, lives dissolutely, returns home begging to be taken back, and is welcomed with open-armed rejoicing by his father but tight-lipped resentment by his elder brother. The closest Keillor comes to transposing Jesus’ story directly into modern Lake Wobegon is in the final paragraph of Lake Wobegon Days. An unnamed man, ignoring the pleas of his wife and child, drives into town for cigarettes in a blizzard. On the way back he slides into a ditch, fears that he is doomed, then sees the light of home in the near distance. (The cigarettes, by the way, are on the counter of the bar where he bought them.) “Town was a long way to go in a blizzard for the pleasure of coming back home,” he realizes. “But what a lucky man. Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted, but getting what you have. . . He starts out on the short walk to the house where people love him and will be happy to see his face.”

More commonly, Keillor focuses a story on one or two elements of the parable. Earlier in Lake Wobegon Days, Uncle Louie goes to Minneapolis with Aunt Gladys seeking a more lucrative career. On their first night there, a hotel clerk “got snooty” with Louie and offered him a room at the sky-high rate of $15 (“Gladys thought it was the weekly rate”). “I didn’t want him to think we were green,” says Louie, “so I peeled off a twenty, my only one.” Lying awake in the room that night, he realizes that “it was pride talking, worldly pride. . . . I decided that if Minneapolis could have that effect on me, that I’d rather spend what I didn’t have than admit to not having it, then I’d better go back where I belonged, and the next day we did.” Not the big city, but the effect that big city values had on Louie threatened to turn him into a prodigal, and home he went.

Other of Keillor’s stories render no judgment on either the city or the son, but revel instead in the generosity of the father. In Leaving Home, Corinne Ingqvist finds her vocation as a teacher in Minneapolis. She comes home to Lake Wobegon on a visit hoping to borrow $50,000 for a house from Hjalmer, her father. “[H]e and his daughter have had their differences,” Keillor writes. “Some of their arguments have made the glasses rattle in the pantry and the family dog cringe behind the couch,” including one about the trip to France she took after cashing some bonds he gave her. “”I guess I could try a bank in the Cities, ” she offered. “It’s too late to take your business elsewhere, ” he said. “I’m your father. It’s too late to shop for another one.” He gave her the check.”

Still other stories are about the elder brother. In the parable, the brother’s misery at spending his life on his father’s farm is palpable. All he can think about is what he deserves in return for all his years of dutiful suffering. Jesus leaves us wondering at the end: will the elder brother put aside his sense of grievance and entitlement and accept his father’s invitation to join his brother’s welcome-home party?

Darryl Tollerud is an elder brother in Lake Wobegon. He is 42 years old, is married with six children, and lives in the little house on his father’s farm while his parents, just the two of them, still live in the big house. His younger brother Gunnar has run off to the city for good—he’s “a drunk.” Meanwhile, Darryl works for his dad. “Sometimes he gets so mad at the old man he screams at him,” Keillor writes. “But always when he’s on the tractor in the middle of the field with the motor running.” Nothing dramatic happens in this story: no return of the younger brother, no invitation from the father. But Darryl experiences the sort of epiphany that Jesus would wish for every elder brother. “He’d been worried about inheriting the farm, meanwhile God had given him six beautiful children. What happens if you expect the worst and get the best? Thank you, Lord, he thought.”

The prodigal who runs off and never comes back is another of Keillor’s themes. Virgil Bunsen has a falling out with his father over some cattle. He moves away and leads an unhappy life. The rupture between the two of them is never healed and his father dies. Virgil himself comes home years later only to be buried. At the graveside service, his nephew Clarence offers these words: “Life is short. The Bible says, don’t let the sun go down upon your wrath. Settle these things. It isn’t true that time heals all wounds, sometimes they get worse if you don’t do something about them.”

Keillor’s most extended variation on the parable of the prodigal son is the story of John Tollefson, whose story begins in Lake Wobegon Days with his teenage years and resumes during middle age in Wobegon Boy, a 1997 novel that is centered on him. As a boy, Johnny itches to leave home. It seems to him that in Lake Wobegon, and especially in his house, child rearing consists of teaching kids that they’re not so hot, that they should do without, and that all their opinions are dumb. “If [Johnny] was to say, “I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, “” Keillor writes, “his dad would say, “A person sure wouldn’t know it to look at you.” Or he would say, “Don’t talk with your mouth full, ” or “It’s about time, ” or maybe he would convert to Unitarianism on the spot (“The trinity? Don’t be ridiculous!”).” Meanwhile the Flambeaus beckon—Emile, Eileen, and their teenage son Tony, the heroes of a book series that Johnny reads at the town library. The Flambeaus live in a New York City apartment overlooking Central Park. They drink wine, stay up late, have sophisticated conversations in which Tony is treated as a mature person, and solve crimes. Johnny thinks of them as his “secret family.”

Getting to New York turns out to be difficult for Johnny. He escapes after high school, but only down the road a few miles to St. Cloud State College, where raucous living entails little more than writing angry poems (“Death Dad” was one) for the college literary magazine under pseudonyms like Ryan Tremaine. To get “experience” so that he will have something to write about when he returns to St. Cloud State for his sophomore year, Johnny gets drunk at the Sidetrack Tap listening to Mr. Berge talk about how much fun the two of them are having. He—John, not Johnny, by now—knocks around in public radio in Minneapolis after college. At age 40, leaving the state to escape a romance gone wrong, he moves to New York—not New York City, but a small college town in upstate New York where he manages a college-owned public radio station. He meets and falls in love with Alida Freeman, a wonderfully appealing woman who is his lawyer’s sister and a history professor at Columbia University.

What brings John home to Lake Wobegon is a near-miss encounter with the college librarian while Alida is away on a research trip. The next morning he takes a long shower, sings “Just As I Am” and shouts “Get me out of here” to himself, and books a seat on the first flight to Minnesota. “I committed a sin and I came home to repent,” he tells his sister when she asks what he is doing in Lake Wobegon. He and his father are still “skittish around each other, and any conversation was like ice cubes on a hot griddle, full of non sequiturs.” But Mom opens her arms wide, and the town does him the great favor of treating him as if his being there “was no big deal. Maybe they hadn’t noticed that I left twenty-five years ago. Maybe they thought I was still around but didn’t get out of the house so often.”

Reconciliation with the town and with his upbringing comes slowly for John, culminating with his father’s death. At the wake, Clint Bunsen tells him over the din, “Your dad was so proud of you. He was always talking you up.” “I yelled, “I wish he’d told me.” “Yes, ” says Clint, “so does he.”” John proposes marriage to Alida, and she accepts. Wobegon Boy ends with him living happily in New York— the city!—as a house husband.

VI

Jesus leaves us hanging in the parable of the prodigal son. Not only do we not know whether the elder brother will ever come to terms with his father, we also are left to wonder what life will be like for the prodigal the morning after the big party. Keillor’s great achievement in the story of John Tollefson is to continue the parable, teaching us in the process that making peace with the home we could not wait to escape is essential to our ever being happy anywhere else.

Perhaps Keillor tells the story so well because it is his story, too, a story of leaving and coming, of rebellion and reconciliation, of restlessness and rootedness. Keillor has quit radio several times, but has always returned. He left Minnesota in anger, but moved back with words of gratitude. “St. Paul is a great city and what makes it so is its power to raise your spirits when you feel discouraged and overworked and misunderstood,” he recently wrote in a thank-you letter to the Pioneer Press. Not all the breaches have been healed, at least not yet. Keillor left The New Yorker to protest the hiring of an editor whom he considered unworthy of the magazine’s great traditions. One can only hope that he will return now that David Remnick, a serious and excellent journalist, is at the helm.

Reconciliation with church—not an idealized version of Church, but small-c church in all its human frailty—has been one of the greatest dramas of Keillor’s life. Remember that brutally satirical article he wrote as a college student when the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ brought in a Christian illusionist to attract people to a meeting? Keillor revisited that story decades later in “Gospel Birds,” an installment of the “News from Lake Wobegon” that is available on several collections of his recordings. The story tells what happened when Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church decided to solve its Wednesday night attendance problems by booking a series of Christian acts, including the world’s tallest evangelist and a former body-builder-gone-wrong named Reverend Duke Peterson. The series concludes with Ernie and Irma Lundeen’s Performing Gospel Birds, which at Ernie and Irma’s direction play familiar hymns by pecking at bells (fittingly, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”) and enact stories from the Bible in costume.

The church is filled with townspeople who came out of boredom or curiosity or even to scoff, as Keillor had at Campus Crusade’s Christian illusionist. Instead, they find themselves awed and moved by both the spectacle and the Lundeens’ shining sense of mission. The service ends with Irma asking everyone to close their eyes and “contemplate God’s great love for us in our lives. And when one of our birds lands on your shoulder, I want you, if you feel that blessing in your heart, to stand up where you are.”

“They were a little nervous,” Keillor continues in an intense, hushed voice, “and some people were peeking. But then they got down to the business of meditating, [and] thoughts did come to mind of divine providence in their lives, of a great love that seemed to abide in the world and that upheld them and supported them as if by invisible hands, . . .and more than that, a presence of grace that lifts all of us up. And as they sat and meditated, one by one each of them felt a slight weight on the shoulder, as if someone had tapped them, and then they did feel blessed. And one by one they stood up where they were, until everyone was standing. It was a stunning moment. And they all felt very touched by this, and not only touched but filled by this miraculous event: the sound of wings in the room like angels moving amongst them and stirring the air.”

Grace and love that lifted him up is what the prodigal found from his father. Keillor’s great accomplishment has been not only to find these gifts for himself but to share them through his stories with the rest of us.

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Bruce Peterson's picture
Bruce Peterson · 6 months ago

Once upon a time, Garrison Keillor took his show to Laramie, Wyoming, my home town.  Of course, I had to go.  Before the show, I went into a local restaurant for dinner.  I looked across the dining room, and THERE HE WAS!  Dining with a  lady friend!  Nobody else seemed to recognize him, though his picture had just appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  I squelched the urge to run over for his autograph, and just gawked.  He noticed me, and I fear it made him uncomfortable.

During his monologue, he said, "People ask me what it's like to have your picture on the cover of Time.  Well, it doesn't much affect your life, but people stare at you in public places!"  So, I guess I was secretly in his show.

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