Lake Wobegon Summer 1956
By Garrison Keillor
291 pages; $24.95
I Thought My Father Was God and Other True Tales From NPR's National Story Project
Edited and introduced by Paul Auster
383 pages; $25
Some readers are a little embarrassed to find "High School Orgies" tucked inside "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956." They expect to find Gary and his pals jamming at the Dew Drop Inn. Instead they read: "Mr. Peters gazed at the front of her blouse and her pert buds barely visible between the buttons. 'Oh Mr. Peters,' she said. 'Do you really think I could be Juliet in the class play?' "
They do not expect to find throbbing manhood in a Garrison Keillor entertainment, even if it is his bildungsroman, the portrait of his becoming the writer he is -- a true story of his teen years. There is in fact actual hot teenage sex in the novel with just a frisson of perversity along with a cousin who kisses, fondles and finally goes all the way.
We learn in this novel that Keillor is a toad person, pouchy, squat and melancholy. Inside such a person, of course, there is a slim, radiant prince. Toad thought assumes transformation -- what it is, what kinds there are and what it does. Humor transforms. It reports the thing yet changes its feeling.
Here is a textbook example of how humor works. Keillor is describing himself in the family photograph: "I look like a tree toad who was changed into a boy but not completely. There is still plenty of toadness there. The dark amphibian eyes blinking, the pipe stem arms and wrists, the high-water pants, the flappy clown-shoes, the Herkimer hair, the steel-rim glasses. There I am at the end of the row of family, hunkering, as if waiting for a tasty dragonfly."
In the photograph of the author on the flap of the jacket, Keillor is positively toady. He is cheek-blown and pensive. He might be swallowing some kind of tasty fly.
And this is it, of course, the great thing -- Keillor is still a toad person, but he is beloved. Toad persons are not beloved, can't be loved. They have other satisfactions. Nonetheless Keillor is beloved. Hard to think what other American humorist is so beloved. Women love Keillor. I, too, must confess, love Keillor. I listen every Saturday evening to "A Prairie Home Companion." I love him the way I love Bill Cosby, who is just as generally beloved.
Genius feel-good storytellers, great manner.
The triumph of the toad person, this is what "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956" sings. And it isn't a princess who releases Keillor's nimble genius from his warty, big-eyed body, either. He gets that kiss from his deranged Aunt Eva while still a young unlovely toad boy, and for the length of this novel we watch that kiss work and work until at last young Gary turns to confront Aunt Eva, human kindness incarnate, the one person he should honor and humor. He doesn't.
It isn't a kiss that transforms this toad person. It is writing that does it.
Writing lets young Gary at last cruelly reject his loyal and loving Aunt Eva.
Writing lets him send his high school enemies to different kinds of hell.
Writing lets Gary kill his siblings with skewering description -- kill them, body and soul.
Writing lets Gary kill his father and leave no paternal fatuity unturned.
Yet humor reigns in this funny novel. You might think the baseball chapter and the Fourth of July celebration chapter a tad long, but baseball and Fourth of July celebrations are long. A lot of nothing must happen before you can go home. The Aunt Eva story inside the main narrative is, I think, the best thing in the book.
Keillor and Cosby are the premier beloved American humorists. They're in a different storytelling league from Paul Auster, yet give Auster his own garland. His fiction is profoundly humorous in its perspective. "The Invention of Solitude," his postmodernist family history, is ultimately kind to its idiot father. It humors him.
Remember the charm of Wayne Wang's movie "Smoke" (1995), its weave of father and son stories? Auster was its writer. His generous mentoring of National Public Radio's National Story Project gives us "I Thought My Father Was God," an excellent sampling of the true tales told on NPR's Weekend "All Things Considered," every story a gem.
Here are the categories: animals, objects, families, slapstick, strangers, war, love, death, dreams, mediations. I went immediately to slapstick and strangers. Wherever you go in this handsome anthology, the tale is taut, quick and has a payoff, a punch line.
"I Thought My Father Was God" is a huge national family history, which is its large meaning. So know that and be vigilant as you enjoy these tales.
Neil Schmitz is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.