Wednesday, November 26, 2014

He's strong and good-looking, and above average

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, stories, memoirs, sketches, humor, humorists

Having listened to A Prairie Home Companion whenever I could between the 1970s and early 2000s, I snapped up Garrison Keillor's new book The Keillor Reader the moment I saw it. I've read only a couple other of his 20+ books, but this promised much, and it does indeed deliver.

The book collects items of Keillor's fiction, semi-fiction and memoir writing over a 45-year career. He thinks of himself primarily as a writer, one who happens to present much of his own writing—or, a stream-of-consciousness version of it—publicly on APHC and at other performance venues.

The arrangement of items is partly by time, within certain topics. He begins with some of his best-loved APHC monologues. I suppose these are from transcripts of his on-air performances, because he writes in one introduction that he pre-writes the monologues, but doesn't read them; he'll use about half the material on average, and chase rabbits (my term for it) as they seem appropriate. His written semi-script is more of a warehouse of ideas he can pick from during the talk. It is a fine way to prepare a talk, and I used a similar strategy in my Toastmasters' International days. But he does supremely better at it!

At least a couple of the monologues must be from public performances, not from on-the-air shows. The material veers into areas my mother used to term "daring". For example, in a hilarious bit triggered by events the day his cousin Kate tried out for a talent show wearing nothing under her sweater, he winds up holding her on his lap as they hide from the school nurse in a stall in the Boys' Room. When he asks, "Are you really not wearing a bra?", she pulls his hands underneath to check for himself. Assuming this is mostly autobiographical, I reckon it was a turning point for a 15-year old boy.

I guess I didn't hear the right monologues to understand the title "Iconic Pajamas" for the second section. The items are short pieces in various genres, published in various venues. He likes to turn well known stories on their head, writing "Little House on the Desert", for example, as a sideways look at Laura Ingalls Wilder: perhaps she "augmented" her stories, for example. Or rewriting "Casey at the Bat" from the perspective of the opposing team. Such bowdlerizations of history continue in the third section, where he lampoons, for example, Earl Grey, Don Giovanni and Zeus.

His humor gets its power from restrained exaggeration. But he can use it quite unrestrainedly when he likes, such as in "My Life in Prison", in which he serves a 512-year sentence for throwing a tomato at his sister. His recounting "My Stroke (I'm Over it)" is straight fact, told in a mildly humorous way, as a fellow, glad to be still alive, might tell his buddies while keeping it light. These are both from the fourth section.

He touches on his faith here and there, with enough emphasis that we realize how profound an affect it has had in his life. Though he was raised in an extremely strict sect of the Brethren, his family was split down the middle between two of its divisions. The various aunts and uncles agreed to be civil anyway, which afforded Keillor and his siblings and cousins more freedom than they'd have had otherwise. He forsook the strict way in his teens, and now takes comfort as an Episcopal. He is warmer than might be suggested by the "God's Frozen Chosen" moniker some use for Anglicans and Episcopals.

His closing essay, "Cheerfulness" is most touching. It begins with a lightning evaluation of synonyms for "happy", noting that being cheerful is a choice, more so than the rest. He claims to be cheerful despite his dour demeanor, and fills the piece with examples. No doubt about it, he spreads good cheer everywhere, so he has a plentiful store of it!

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