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Clint Bunsen takes some liberties in Lake Wobegon

Time doesn't exactly stand still in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon. Children grow up, neighbors move away, people die. And yet there is a familiarity to life in the fictional Minnesota town that brings to mind the 1950s more than the 21st century.

So it's fitting that "Liberty," Keillor's latest novel about Lake Wobegon would tackle that remnant of a bygone era known as the Fourth of July parade.

The title refers not just to what is being celebrated in the annual parade but also to what parade organizer Clint Bunsen is attempting to gain throughout the story, literally -- freedom -- and more literally -- a 28-year-old parade participant dressed as Miss Liberty. It is an occasionally funny story of longing and regret, full of the trademark wit that the author has been displaying in print and on radio -- and in a movie -- for almost 35 years.

There seem to be fewer laugh-out-loud moments in this novel. Maybe that has something to do with familiarity with his style. You can listen to Keillor on the radio and be constantly entertained, but never bust a gut.

"Liberty" is like that. What it lacks in freshness it makes up for in its ability to amuse.

This is Keillor's sixth novel about Lake Wobegon, following last year's "Pontoon." There are parallels between the two most recent efforts, notably that they follow one character through a signature moment -- in Pontoon, a death, in Liberty, an extramarital affair -- who then struggles to remain in a place where both feel constrained by the familiarity of small-town life.

Clint Bunsen has a life he never wanted. He made it out of Lake Wobegon as a young man in the Navy and had designs on a life in California. But his parents lured him back to say goodbye to them, he became involved with his high school sweetheart Irene -- involved in the biblical sense -- took over his father's car dealership, got married, had kids and suddenly he was 60 and farther from California than ever.

But at least he has the Fourth. In the six years he has been chairman of the parade, it has become a major spectacle, so much so that even CNN came last year and covered the event and an international audience estimated at 57 million got a look at Lake Wobegon through the magic of cable television.

He learns that success breeds resentment and his "let's-just-get-this-thing-done" management style has left many traditional parade participants with hurt feelings.

Keillor sums up at that style in one of his trademark epic sentences: "Don't tell me about the fireworks display you saw in Boston the time you visited your nephew who was thinking of attending Emerson College but then went to Winona State instead and majored in elementary education and taught school for a while in Williston and then fell in love with a girl whose dad was in the oil business and he sent Curt to Bahrain and they're quite content there, he and Melissa have three children -- now what are their names? -- let's just do what needs to be done, spare me the storytelling."

(This is not even the longest sentence in the first 10 pages; I counted one that went 244 words, although to be fair, I counted "snap-bang-rattle-boombooming" as four words. But what Keillor lacks in punctuation, he more than makes up for in character description.)

Forced from the chairmanship in a bloodless coup led by Viola Tors, Clint begins spending time in Internet chat rooms and begins communicating with Angelica Pflame, an Internet psychic who played Miss Liberty in last year's parade. "She was tall. Slim, with strong shoulders. Big legs. She wore a dress the color of dawn, she smelled like young corn, buttered. Red hair pulled back in a yellow clip, a good strong nose, green eyes. Pale freckled skin. Hands behind her back and she bounced on her toes."

Their inevitable tryst -- which followed her incorrect assessment of his lineage as less Norwegian, more Hispanic -- changes everything. Clint considers leaving Irene, running away with Angelica and leaving Lake Wobegon in the rear view mirror.

But first, he will help run the parade for the last time. Angelica decides to march as Miss Liberty again, wearing nothing under her robe. Then the late-arriving governor trips on her gown and it is ripped from her and he is on his knees staring at her . . . midsection while CNN cameras roll and Clint takes her back to the car dealership where he is confronted by not one but two gun-toting people.

The hilarious parade chaos is also reminiscent of the climax of "Pontoon," and features the moment where Clint must decide whether to follow Lady Liberty to The Coast or stay with his wife by The Lake.

The ending may be anything but unexpected. But it's Lake Wobegon. What would you expect?

Bruce Andriatch is The News' suburban editor and columnist.


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