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Deconstructing the Oblique Americana of GARRISON KEILLOR

Posted In:Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature, Culture, Fiction, Biography | From Issue 739 | By: | 12th January, 2012 | 0


As a prolific novelist and essayist with his origins deeply seated in radio broadcasting, Garrison Keillor is also an enigmatic road warrior distinguished by a rigorous touring schedule. Indeed, the writer & host of Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, which is heard by 4 million listeners each week on more than 600 public radio stations,will bring his homespun with & humor to Saginaw’s historic Temple Theatre on Monday, January 30 at 7:30 PM.

Born in Anoka, Minnesota, the son of a carpenter & postal worker, at 6’3” Keillor is a looming presence in American letters. A member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1966. While there he began his broadcasting career on the student-operated radio station known today as Radio K.
           
When it debuted before a live audience in 1974, A Prairie Home Companion tapped into the current of a pastoral Americana that seemingly had faded into the recessive mists of time; or perhaps one displaced by the incessant noise of technology. Framed as an old-style variety show it featured guest musicians and a cadre cast doing musical numbers and comic skits with elaborate special effects. One of its trademarks was spoof commercial spots from fictitious sponsors, similar to what the National Lampoon Radio Hour also experimented with at the time.
                 
Keillor has written for The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and has published many best-selling books and anthologies. A strong believer in celebrating an elegant looseness in life, he often aligns himself on the side of freedom from crushing obligation, overwork, and family expectations. In 2006 the late-great Director auteur Robert Altman created a beautiful film version of A Prairie Home Companion written by Keillor, who appeared in the film as himself. It was Altman’s last movie and a haunting coda to his career.
                 
Not without controversy, in 2008 Keillor filed a lawsuit in St. Paul against his neighbor’s plans to build an addition to their home, citing his need for “light and air” and a “view of open space and beyond.” Keillor’s home is significantly larger than others in his neighborhood and would still be larger with the neighbor’s planned addition. Shortly after the story became public, he came to an undisclosed settlement with the neighbor.
                 
This incident is emblematic in the sense that one of Keillor’s strong-suits is his way of reconciling seeming contradictions. While touting all things folksy and down-home, he is highly cultivated, incredibly well-read, and a worldly individual. His News from Lake Wobegon remains a testimonial to small-town life as well as a poke in the ribs towards it.
                 
In The Time of the Assassins, author Henry Miller wrote that “Only at the edge of the precipice is it possible to realize that everything we are taught is false. The proof of this is demonstrated every realm – we live entirely in the past, nourished by dead thoughts, dead creeds, dead sciences. And it is the past which is engulfing us, not the future.”
                 
Given Keillor’s unique connection to the past, along with verities and values embedded within it that he finds important, Keillor is constantly grappling with the poetic quest between the nature of memory that creates an illusory existence that disconnects people, while embracing the need to realize one’s true potential by living completely within the moment.
                 
At 68, he plans to retire in the Spring of 2013; and when asked about retirement in general, he responds: “When I was younger, I was all in favor of it. Now that I’m at that age, I’m not sure. I don’t want to make a fool of myself and be singing romantic duets with 25-year old women when I’m 75. But on the other hand, it’s so much fun. And in radio, the lighting is right.”
                 
Keillor claims the one thing he failed at in life was writing poetry, yet he continues to embrace and read it constantly. He has written, “poetry is the truest form of journalism that we have” and when asked to explain, he notes “Poetry is a record of the life around us and in us. You’ll get a better idea from poetry what it was like to be alive in 2011 than you will from The New York Times.”
           
“I would never tell you that you need poetry,” he continues. “But if we were eating dinner together and you said something disparaging about poetry, I might look you in the eye and recite A Blessing by James Wright or Since Feeling is First by ee.cummings, and you would be moved by the straightforward musicality of it. Composers keep trying to set these things to music and there’s absolutely no need to – true poetry is music. You would be touched by the music of our ordinary American English.”
                 
Writer Evelyn Renold once asked Keillor if age gave him an advantage in writing and finding meaning in life, to which he responded: “Good Lord, no. The advantage is with youth, as in most things. They have the energy and bravery and pizzazz; they go slamming around and we old coots tiptoe along the edge. But we have high hopes. And there are exceptions to the rule. I’m reading Edward Hoagland’s latest book, Sex & the River Styx. He is one of the greatest prose stylists of our time; he is 78 and this is his best good – great God, I am stunned at this accomplishment. And Robert Bly, closing in on 90 and writing beautifully and more humorously than ever. I’m 68 and cheering for my elders.”
                 
As the owner of a bookstore in St. Paul, how does Keillor feel about the Kindle and other digital reading devises versus printed books?
                 
“I favor people reading by whatever technology seems hospitable to them. My wife takes her Kindle on trips, I pack books in my suitcase. Either is fine. I happen to love the sensual experience of walking into a bookstore and examining the wares, picking up books, smelling them, admiring the covers, reading the first page or two. In 15 minutes I can always find at least five books that deeply interest me. I can’t do that online. It just doesn’t excite my viscera the way physical books do. It’s not a pleasure I can transfer to a digital image on a screen, just as I can’t get excited about a picture of a naked woman as I do about one who is walking across the floor toward me.”
                 
Keillor says that currently he is working on a screenplay about a son of Lake Wobegon coming home for a funeral and finding out that, despite his long years of exile in distant cities, he still belongs to these people. “It’s scary how much he still belongs. These people have the power to make him ashamed, which distant cities do not. His conscience resides there. The next novel is a Guy Noir mystery in which the old detective is all lined up to become a multimillionaire thanks to his friendship with a brilliant woman, Naomi Fallopian, who has come up with the perfect weight-loss scheme.”
                 
“Life is a carnival,” concludes Keillor. “People are wildly busy, there are love affairs to be pursued, arguments to be waged, omelets to be made, gardens to be tended, plus ballgames, movies, auctions, bike trips, and poetry is very patient. Emily Dickenson has waited 120-some years for you to read, “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed” and she can wait a few more years.”
                 
Tickets for ‘An Evening with Garrison Keillor’ are $99.00, $59.00, $49.00 and $39.00 and available go going to the templetheatre.com or phoning 877-754-SHOW.
             
 
 
 
 
 
 

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