The Lake Wobegon Virus

Original Publish Date: July 13, 2020

The newest Lake Wobegon novel, The Lake Wobegon Virus, published on September 8, 2020 via Arcade Publishing.

Hardcover and eBook versions are available; plus a CD audiobook and subscription services such as Audible, Google Play, and ScribD, are also now available.


From the Publisher:
Bestselling author and humorist Garrison Keillor returns to one of America’s most beloved mythical towns, beset by a contagion of alarming candor.

A mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition. Mayor Alice, Father Wilmer, Pastor Liz, the Bunsens and Krebsbachs, formerly taciturn elders, burst into political rants, inappropriate confessions, and rhapsodic proclamations, while their teenagers watch in amazement. Meanwhile, a wealthy outsider is buying up farmland for a “Keep America Truckin’” Motorway and Amusement Park, estimated to draw 2.2 million visitors a year. Clint Bunsen and Elena the hometown epidemiologist to the rescue, with a Fourth of July Living Flag and sweet corn feast for a finale.

In his newest Lake Wobegon novel, Garrison Keillor takes us back to the small prairie town where for so long American readers and listeners have found laughter as well as the wry airing of our most familiar fears, desires, and beliefs—a town where, as we know, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”


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Read the first chapter:

THE LAKE WOBEGON VIRUS

Chapter 1: FEBRUARY 16, 6:30 A.M.

Well, it has been a quiet year in Lake Wobegon except for the heat wave in February and then that weird epidemic of what’s called “episodic loss of inhibition” and sensible Germans and Norwegians pouring out inappropriate feelings, spilling crazy secrets, hallucinating about some conspiracy or other, acting out—Darlene baring her breasts at the Chatterbox Cafe—Dorothy stopped her in time, but still—our beloved Darlene, the last of the old-time waitresses who called their clients “Sweetheart,” at 55 opening her blouse!—and Pastor Liz making a fool of herself in a Sunday sermon. And Clint coming out as an atheist and Father Wilmer caught in carnal thoughts, the postmaster Mr. Bauser observed while on duty singing, “The State Department and Internal Revenue are promoting a One World point of view. Obama was a Kenyan man, took the oath of office on a Koran. Don’t be brainwashed by the press, they’re promoting godlessness,” and then saw Myrtle waiting to buy stamps. She said, “Are you supposed to be singing songs on the job?” She went out and told Clarence Bunsen, and Clarence came and talked to him, and Mr. Bauser denied all. And from then on, he returned Myrtle’s letters to her, marked “Address Illegible,” though she went to school back when good penmanship was taught and hers was A+. And somebody—guess who?—put her name on the mailing list of the American Free Love Party. It was ugly. When I came to town in March, people said, “I hope you aren’t going to write about this,” which of course aroused my curiosity since I had no idea what they meant and so I stuck around to find out.

That same day, Arlen Hoerschgen walked up to the checkout desk at the library, and Grace, gentle Grace, ever-patient Grace, looked at the book of limericks he wanted to check out and said, “When in hell are you going to grow up?” And she quoted a dozen dirty limericks at him, including:

There was a young girl of Eau Claire
Who was graceful and so debonaire,
But she did not pee
Like a girl, downwardly,
But could aim up high in the air.

and others even worse and said, “I tell you, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I remember your ne’er-do-well uncle going around town tanked up on sloe gin and singing filthy songs in broad daylight like the one about the shepherd and the magpie, and his poor children were so ashamed of him they all went off and became Seventh-day Adventists.” And she stamped the due date on it and handed it to him, and he felt sort of sheepish and returned with it 20 minutes later to apologize, and she had no memory of it whatsoever. “Where’d this come from?” she said. “Read whatever you like.” Loss of inhibition followed by memory loss.

Mrs. Torgerson entered a national talent contest performing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on Audubon bird whistles, all six and one-half minutes of it, and Bob took off on a long road trip to visit relatives in Oregon and Washington while she rehearsed. Neighbors said the artistry was incredible, sometimes involving three or four whistles at once, but the effect of the whole was to make you reach for your gun.

It was craziness, and it set neighbor against neighbor, Norwegian against German, a town that prided itself on sobriety and responsibility and modest behavior, and meanwhile, looming on the horizon was the very real threat of a Keep America Truckin’ Museum and Motorway in the planning stages south of town, featuring a mile oval for racing 18-wheelers—farmland was already being bought up for the thing—annual attendance estimated to be 2.2 million visitors, many with huge tattoos and carrying six-guns and six-packs, and rumor had it there’d be a six-lane freeway and a couple of high-rise hotels on the outskirts of town and maybe a casino. An absolute nightmare. The “Little Town That Time Forgot” suddenly becoming the little town that Misfortune fell in love with, where all the women are horrified, the men are bewildered, and the children are amused at the distress of their elders.

Dorothy of the Chatterbox said, “It’s been like a horror novel but with actual people, you wouldn’t want to read it but you are living it.” In the midst of a town council meeting, Mayor Eloise Krebsbach jumped up, threw her gavel out the window not noticing it was closed, and said, “This town has gone to the dogs and as far as I’m concerned, they can have it.” She took a job as a nail salon hostess in St. Paul and was replaced by Alice Dobbs, a newcomer to town (1995), who feels that problems have solutions and if we commit ourselves to the common good, we can find our way out of the woods.

Lenny, a Wobegon girl who left home to become an epidemiologist, came home during a bitter divorce and diagnosed the problem, and Alice, over fierce opposition, brought in a municipal therapist though people here don’t do therapy or discuss unpleasant feelings. If someone asks, “How are you?” you say, Fine. And that’s good enough. It could be worse. You go into therapy and you are apt to get engrossed in yourself and neglect your children and they turn out fragile and moody and take up songwriting or conceptual baking. But the therapist, Ashley, turned out to be a very nice person, mannerly, soft-spoken, once you got to know her. And in the midst of it all, I arrived to work on a sainthood project and thought about writing this book instead, but now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where to begin?

It began on February 16th at about 6:30 a.m. in the Chatterbox Cafe when the old waitress Darlene leaned down and said to Daryl Tollerud, “You disgust me, and you know why? Because you never make eye contact, there’s never a ‘Good morning’ or ‘How are you, Darlene?’—you sit there waiting for the world to do your bidding and bring your bacon and eggs, and when I bring it, you stare at my boobs. It’s like you never saw a woman before. Twenty years you’ve been staring at them. Well, here they are—” And she tore open her shirt and there they were for a split second until Dorothy grabbed her, and Darlene picked up the plate and smooshed it in his face as fried egg yolk ran down his shirt along with hash browns and bacon, and she turned and stalked away. People around him pretended nothing had happened, which Lake Wobegon people are adept at doing. They could ignore an anvil falling out of a tree so long as it didn’t fall on them.

Dorothy cleaned him up and apologized, and Daryl felt bad about what she said, realizing there was some truth to it. It went back to when he was 16 and attended a carnival sideshow at the county fair and saw a contortionist named Maria who folded herself up to fit inside a breadbox and then handed her brassiere up to the ringmaster, and if you liked you could pay a quarter to go and look into the breadbox and Daryl did, and there she was, all folded up, her arms wrapped around her chest, and ever since then Daryl has felt a thrill at the sight of a woman with folded arms.

Minutes later, Darlene emerged from the ladies’ room as if nothing had happened, and when Dorothy said, “What’s wrong with you?” Darlene had no idea what she meant. “You spilled all down the front of your shirt,” she said to Daryl. “Don’t eat so fast.” Somebody told her she had bared her bosom. She said, “Good God, who do you take me for?” Daryl is a forgiving soul—he had four teenage children living under his roof at one time, one of them a Goth and a shoplifter, another a drummer—and also he felt he was responsible for what happened, a common reaction among Lutherans.

He finished his breakfast and went home and heard a voice from the bedroom—“Is that you?”—and of course it was him, who else would she imagine it might be? He felt a twinge of jealousy, and then there she was, half in her lingerie and half out, approaching him in a meaningful way, and said, “I was waiting for you.” His old Marilyn, mother of his five children, in the mood for love at eight thirty in the morning, will wonders never cease? She had been the most beautiful woman in town, and when she was young and went dancing at the Moonlight Bay Supper Club, men fought in the parking lot for the right to dance with her. Men cursing, fists on bone, she was so lovely, and that’s how she came to marry Daryl. All the fighting men were in a rage and she walked away with a pacifist.

It was an historic week for her and Daryl. They had rid themselves of a Chihuahua named Mitzi who was bought over Daryl’s objections, he being an old farmboy brought up to believe dogs live outdoors so they can run off interlopers and in payment for this service, we feed them. A Chihuahua serves no purpose except to share its anxieties. One day in February, the dog, on a toilet run, encountered a skunk. The dog had never imagined such a thing as a skunk existing—had no idea what the purpose of one would be—and the skunk unloaded, and Daryl grabbed the .22 and ran out and met the skunk, who still had some left in him, and Daryl didn’t even get off a shot. Mitzi had a nervous breakdown and Daryl showered for an hour and still had some skunk in his hair, so Marilyn clipped his head clean and Mitzi went off to live with cousin Janice in the city. Daryl slept in the guest room for a week and now, evidently, was attractive again.

She kissed him and unbuckled his belt and placed his hand on her bosom, and he stepped out of his shoes and his masculinity hung loose like a graduation tassel. He was spectacularly impotent. She tried to get its attention, but it was thinking of other things. After years of embarrassing involuntary erections in public—walking around with a ball-peen hammer in his pants—Darlene’s attack on him had removed the lead from his pencil. His billiard cue had turned into a curtain sash.

And two days later, an anonymous person left a gift for Darlene: a new bra made of molded plastic with a combination lock on the strap. It was a joke, but Darlene took it badly, and days later she packed up and left town without a word and the loss was felt immediately.

Some people are irreplaceable, and in a small town we know who they are. Darlene is a font of information about local history and who is married to whom and where their kids wound up and what they do. For example, David and Judy Ingqvist, the former pastor and his wife—retired, Napa Valley, hikers and bikers, switched to Unitarian, daughter Brenda is a professional pet grief therapist, author of Mourning Your Cat, conducts pet grief seminars and several annual pet grief cruises to the Caribbean. Nobody but Darlene can give you this level of detail.

She also rules over the potluck suppers in town, receives the offerings and arranges them on the serving tables, and when she is away, the number of store-bought dishes quadru-ples—big tubs of yellowish potato salad rather than homemade, factory-made lasagna. With Darlene as gatekeeper, people are inspired to make an effort, and with her gone, there is a great slacking-off, and you don’t want that in a small town. What if your firemen and EMTs and teachers start to slack off? What if your neighbors see your window wide open in the pouring rain and think, “Oh what the hell. Not my problem.”

And beyond that, she’s from a previous era when waitresses might call you “Darling” or “Sweetheart” or “Sugar,” and if she  knows you well, you’d be “Honeybunch” or “Sweetykins” or “Precious.” Maybe she’d ask what you want and you’d say, “The usual,” and she’d pinch the flab under your chin and say, “Maybe we’ve been having too much of the usual, darling.” With her gone, nobody would ever be “Precious” again. She was missed by all the old men whose wives no longer sweettalk them. Once, Duane Bunsen, home from his IT job in a Minneapolis bank, came back for a weekend and was Honeybunched by Darlene and went back to Minneapolis and called his office manager “Sweetheart” and was spoken to sharply. But in this town, Sweethearting and Preciousing between adults who’ve known each other since childhood is considered a comfort. And you, beloved reader, should take my word for it. I’m not kidding, Pumpkin.

It was a time of strange phenomena. Daryl and David Darwin, the one-time bullies of the town who loved fistfights more than life itself, now approaching 80, their hands having been busted so many times they cannot shuffle a deck of cards or handle a wrench—they stood in Wally’s Sidetrack Tap among the cribbage game, the basketball on TV, the pinball machine dinging, both of them tipsy on peach brandy, and they broke into “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” a favorite of their mother’s, sang it in sweet two-part harmony like Don and Phil Everly. The pinball stopped, the TV sound was turned down. Two rotten sinners and hell-raisers, but something had moved them and they sang from the depths of their blackened hearts, “Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long, still to us at twilight comes love’s old song, comes love’s old sweet song.”

Wally said, “That was beautiful, boys,” and then he sneezed so hard he blew his cigar across the room, shedding sparks like a comet, and he threw out his sacroiliac. He looked for the cigar and found it under a radiator, and there beside it was a letter postmarked 2017, addressed to Daryl Darwin when he was in jail for malicious cruelty, written by his mother, Millie, on her deathbed and delivered three years late, which said, “Darling Daryl, I love you dearly and though you have hurt me deeply, I forgive you, and as I prepare to leave this world, I want you to know that I see the good in you and am proud to be your mom.” Nobody ever had said good things about Daryl Darwin and here he’d been forgiven from beyond the grave, and he and David sang their mother’s favorite song, tears running down their cheeks, and men in the bar who bore scars inflicted by the Darwins wept along with them.

The same day Darlene got the bra, the Men’s Fellowship, a group of 30 or so who used to be the Men’s Prayer Fellowship but gradually devolved into a social club, met for lunch at the Legion hall. It was always old man Bunsen who had prayed, Clarence and Clint’s dad, Oscar, and when dementia struck, he prayed in Norwegian, which was so majestic men wept to hear it, though they couldn’t understand a word, and when he died, few ventured to pray a real prayer, knowing the result would be inferior. Oscar was widely revered. On the day he died, at age 82, though out of his mind, he came to town and enjoyed a hearty lunch, had a beer at the Sidetrack, won three bucks at cribbage, told three jokes well, danced to “The Too Fat Polka” with Wally’s wife, who was tending bar, walked three miles home, lay down for a nap and never awoke.

The Fellowship sat down to chicken chow mein and coleslaw at two long tables, and everyone murmured, “God is great and God is good, and we thank Him for the food. By His hand, we must be fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” And then Clint Bunsen stood up as they started to dig in and said, “I have to say that the idea that there is a daddy in the sky who is arranging our lives and doing favors in exchange for our admiration is an old hoax, and everybody knows it deep down in your hearts and doesn’t dare say it. If he is a god of goodness and he doesn’t use his power to wipe out evil, then he isn’t omnipotent and there’s no reason to worship him. God is a wrong turn we took back in antiquity, and it is responsible for more hatred and warfare and cruelty than anything else, and yet our grandfathers handed it to our fathers and they gave it to us, and I say, No, thank you. Wake up, live your life, be glad for what you have, and don’t let delusions of godliness blind you to the beauty of nature.” And he sat down and dug into his chicken chow mein. And Roger asked Clarence if Clint was okay, and he said, “He was an hour ago.”

Conversation was muted after that and stuck mainly to the weather, the long-term forecasts. It was Lent, after all, and Lutheran men sign a Lenten pledge to observe 10 hours of silence a week, which for some of them would be a normal day. Anyway, they didn’t talk about atheism.

When Clarence caught up with him later, Clint, unlike Darlene, did not deny having said what he said. He said he’d heard a TED Talk by a woman who said that deism is destructive to our ability to empathize, that it dehumanizes us, and he’d been listening to her podcast, so some of her thoughts were running through his head and something moved him to speak them aloud, so he did, and he didn’t feel embarrassed, quite the contrary. His granddaughters had been encouraged to express themselves freely, and now they are all over the map ideologically, anarcho-humanist, animal activist, post-behavioral feminism, witchcraft, and he feels okay about stepping out of the Comfy Grampa role and staking out some ground for himself.

Clarence pointed out the obvious—that their Ford dealership, Bunsen Motors, is traditionally patronized by Lutherans, rather than the Catholic Krebsbach Chev, and so it might be prudent to keep any atheist thoughts to himself lest Ford owners feel a divine calling to buy Chevs instead. Perhaps an apology to the Men’s Fellowship would be in order. Clint declined to apologize. “I feel like I’ve been apologizing all my life and that’s enough.” He said it felt good to say his piece, and it made people sit up and think, and how can you be opposed to thoughtfulness?

“There is truth in what you say, I’m sure, but we have a business to think of,” said Clarence.

“Ha! A dying business. You and I are old, and none of our kids are interested in selling cars or working on them, believe me, I’ve asked. Duane’s happy in Minneapolis, Harry does comic books, Donna’s in real estate, Barbara Ann runs her husband Bill and elects Democrats. And what fool is going to buy a small-town Ford dealership that runs 85 percent on personal loyalty? New owner comes in, and suddenly all the Lutherans are free to shop around and buy Japanese. There’s a big Ford dealership just down the road that undersells us by 10 to 15 percent. You know it and I know it. You’re looking at retirement, Bubs. Another year or two and you can stop combing the hair over your bald spot and get yourself a bigger color TV.”

“Okay, okay,” Clarence said. “Think what you like, but don’t feel you have to share it with the world, okay? Spare me the headache. No need to go around desecrating things.” And Clint nodded and slid back under the car—a quart of peanut butter had melted into the heater and needed to be vacuumed and squeegeed out—reason enough, Clarence thought, to lose faith in God temporarily. He noticed on the workbench a white lily and a chocolate-covered doughnut and a Post-it note, “You’re my hero. I love you.” In Irene’s handwriting. He’d been counting on Irene’s help. No such luck.

Clint had had his doubts about Christianity for years, having been the Samaritan who goes out on emergency calls with the wrecker to rescue Christians with car problems. Hundreds of times he had stood beside a motorist staring helplessly at his engine and taking the Lord’s name in vain and Clint reached down and flicked something, and the car leaped to life, and the Christian hated him for fixing it so quickly (couldn’t he have pretended to be confused and said, “Boy, I dunno, this is a toughie,” but no, he just reached down and bingo). So the Christian hands him a ten, and Clint says, “No, no, my pleasure,” and he smiles and pats the Christian’s arm, and walks away, and it’s the pat on the arm that pisses the Christian off, the patronizing pat of the big hero of the highway, and you’re the goat. No, Clint had helped many a stranded Christian and heard his teeth grinding as he walked away.

Now he expected Pastor Liz to come and have a word with him about faith and offer him some helpful pamphlets to read, and he planned to tell her, “I decided it’s time to face the darkness and not be afraid,” and two days later Pastor Liz went over the cliff.

The next Sunday morning, she seemed distracted, she didn’t join in the opening hymn, she stood up to give the sermon. The rule about sermons is: they should have a clear beginning and a strong end, and the two should be as close together as possible. Liz is dyslexic, so she tries to memorize the sermon, but she carries blank paper with her because Lutherans get nervous if the pastor in the pulpit has no text, they worry that she’ll go on at length and the pot roast will burn in the oven.

This sermon got away from her, and it went on for almost an hour. It started out on the verse in Colossians about Christ interceding for us at the right hand of the throne of God, and the word “throne” flipped a switch, and she told about the time she flew to Boston and used the toilet on the plane, not noticing the warning sign “DO NOT FLUSH WHILE SEATED ON TOILET,” because she was sitting on the toilet at the time, and she flushed and felt a powerful force gripping her butt like a python seizing a rat, and she couldn’t pry herself loose. The flight attendant was tapping on the door and asking, “Are you all right?” and Pastor Liz didn’t know how to answer that question. She was basically all right in that she had faith in God’s unceasing love, but on the other hand, she was being swallowed by a toilet. The flight attendant tried to break the seal by inserting his hand between the toilet seat and her left cheek. But she was still stuck, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Cleveland, and the ground crew cut the toilet free with an acetylene torch and lifted her out, the seat still stuck to her, and carried her through the terminal, toilet seat attached, and someone took a picture and it appeared on Instagram, Liz looking like a Parker House roll on a plate, with arms and legs. This picture made its way to the bishop, and so Liz, who’d been marked for a coveted assignment at prestigious Central Lutheran in Minneapolis, got shunted off to Lake Wobegon. Minneapolis Lutherans didn’t want a pastor whose buttocks had gone viral online. One wrong flush, and though she’d been valedictorian at St. Olaf, she was sent to the sticks. The mention of St. Olaf then reminded her of the boy named Adam who took her virginity, but she had to beg him to do it, he didn’t do it of his own volition, and then she talked about her cat, Muffin, who had a kidney infection, and then she went on a tirade against the church demoting the Holy Spirit, who is the feminine member of the Trinity—the congregation sat in shock and three people walked out, and then the organist, Tibby Marklund, who’d been working a crossword puzzle, planted her left foot on a pedal and there was a throbbing bass note like an ailing hippopotamus, and two altos burst out in horrible whinnying laughter, and Liz left and there was no Communion.

Lutherans are not amused by stream-of-consciousness sermons. Some people said, “Oh, she was only sharing her humanity,” but phone calls were made by the elders, and on Monday morning Lutheran HQ sent a psychologist to talk to Liz, who had no memory of the sermon though she admitted the toilet seat story was true, and the psychologist asked her if she had had a mental lapse of this sort previously, and Liz looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t care for your tone of voice. I am a minister of the Gospel, I am not here for you to patronize. Go be snotty to somebody else.” The next day she left quietly on an extended leave of absence with her sister Lil, who’d come all the way from Grand Forks to collect her. The cat was given to the Tolleruds, and that evening Daryl dosed it with a tranquilizer crushed in whipped cream, and Muffin went to the Great Lap in the Sky.

Lake Wobegon had never had a genuine clerical scandal before, and it made the most of this one, especially the Catholics did. They went out of their way to accost their Lutheran friends and express sympathy in a way that made you want to give them a good swift kick in the shins. Their sympathy was insufferable.

Myrtle Krebsbach said to Florence Tollefson, “I can’t imagine what you people are going through right now. This must be terribly painful. She seemed like such a nice person.”

Florence said, “Mind your own business for once.”

“To sit there Sunday morning and listen to your own minister talk about getting stuck on a toilet seat and then losing her virginity to somebody who didn’t even like her. In church. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like.”

Florence’s gaze drilled right into her. “Well, I’m glad we’ve given you all something to gossip about. Feast on it. Your turn will come, I promise.”

“If there’s anything I can do to help, I hope you’ll let me know.”

“You could start by losing 40 pounds and using less eye shadow. You’re 80 years old, for God’s sake.”

“I’m only expressing my sympathy. I’m sorry this is so painful for you.”

Florence said, “Well, you can take your sympathy and put it where the sun don’t shine.”

There was great delight in the Sidetrack Tap, of course, a place where decorum is not a fixed standard. Men took a toilet seat off the wall and passed it around, and Clint Bunsen, on his second rum and Coke, hung the seat around his neck and sang:

I used to work in Chicago
In a big department store.
I used to work in Chicago—
I did but I don’t anymore.
A lady came in for a girdle.
I asked her what kind she wore.
“Rubber,” she said, and rub her I did,
And I don’t work there anymore.

And Mr. Bauer recited: “There was a young pastor named Liz who sat on the toilet to whiz. She flushed and it stuck on her butt. WTF. And that’s what her ass meant and is.”

Clint split a gut, and then they did “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie” and “Roll Me Over in the Clover” and the dirty version of “Red Wing,” and they told limericks about the young man from Antietam and the young lady of Buckingham. The Sidetrack Tap is not the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and it has its own rules. Of course, if Pope Francis walked in or Michelle Obama, people would behave accordingly, but meanwhile, it is what it is, and the old patrons took some pleasure in the chagrin of Lutherans at the Liz episode.

And so the town headed into March, the month God created to show people who don’t drink what a hangover is like. The Lutheran bishop sent a pale seminarian named Phipps to replace Liz. He was pleasant enough but had a terrible habit of strolling into the congregation during his sermon, approaching people, putting his hand on your shoulder, preaching face-to-face, which terrified people. What if he grabbed you suddenly and hollered, “Heal!”—what would you do? Lutherans are not Pentecostals, they’re not looking for out-of-the-body experiences. So Phipps was sent back to the factory, and a young woman named Faith arrived who was Episcopalian as you could see from the rather ornate sash around her neck, like a sidecloth from your grandma’s buffet, and good God, the way she genuflected with a deep curtsy—can’t you cross yourself without making it into a ballet move? She did the Good Friday reading of Christ on the cross, and when she read, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” it sounded like she was having an episode. And the Easter reading and the angel saying, “DO NOT BE ALARMED”—it was alarming. This is church, not Masterpiece Theatre. She was sent back.

Meanwhile, the inappropriate incidents went on. Margie Krebsbach sat down in the Bon Ton to have her hair done and started talking French to Charlotte. French! She spoke a whole slew of it. Charlotte remembers enough French from high school to recognize it as something of a communistic nature with the words “Allons! Allons! Mes camarades!” Then Margie closed her eyes and leaned back, and Charlotte did the usual and no more was said. Weird. It was Arlene Bunsen who read an article about inappropriate outbursts as a symptom of food poisoning, and she took it to Dr. DeHaven, who was busy with a man whose urinary tract was on the fritz, so she left the article for him and he wrote her a note before he went home for his nap. She had to find his old nurse Eleanor, who is the only person in town, including Dr. DeHaven, who can read his handwriting. He said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got my hands full with people who actually need help. Your people are just competing for attention.” Dr. DeHaven was 78 and had hinted at retirement years before but was offended that nobody tried to talk him out of it, and so he stayed on. He was a good man, but his general motto was “Let’s wait and see,” which doesn’t always lead to good results. He was easily bored by people’s complaints and often changed the subject to his own adventures as a hunter and fisherman and told one story after another until the appointment was up and thanked the patient and saw him or her to the door.

The Lutheran church was pastorless, so the bishop sent Rev. Anderson, a retiree, a pastor from the pasture, 82, who often neglected to wear his hearing aids and seemed quite content to be deaf. According to Lucille, who cleaned the parsonage as well as the church, he missed the toilet when he peed, and he took two-hour naps, sometimes two in succession. It was discovered after three weeks that his sermons came word-for-word from Homily Helper, a collection of 520 sermon outlines that he read as sermons, about three minutes in length. To Lutherans, those are known as “chalk talks,” and they’re meant for children. The man was shirking his duty.

Lutherans are dutiful people. Many Lutheran couples, after their wedding and the supper in the church basement, have stuck around to help with the dishes and cleaning up, even though their families tell them, “You go now. We’re fine. It’s your honeymoon, for heaven’s sake,” but the couple insists, “No, we don’t want to leave you with the mess. As soon as we sweep up and clean off the tables, we’ll be out of here.” Elderly Lutherans have gone in the hospital and wished the pastor would come visit them but refused to let anyone tell him. They would rather die than be a problem, and often they do. But a three-minute sermon is an insult. So Clarence and Roger and Grace and Dorothy drove down to the Minneapolis Lutheran synod headquarters and arrived a few minutes before the 5 p.m. closing time, and the front door was locked, so Roger got out a lug wrench and banged on the glass until a bishop appeared, and they marched in without a word of apology, unusual for Lutherans, and told the bishop that Pastor Anderson was a disgrace to the vestments, and he was drummed out, and the next day Liz came back, good old Liz. She’d been accepted as an intern at an organic hydroponic herb farm owned by Ben, who was auditioning to be her boyfriend, but when the bishop called her, she felt a tug at her heartstrings, and besides, Ben—a Republican who believed that a Deep State of undercover Harvard liberals was running Washington—required more remedial work than she cared to invest in him, so she accepted her old job back and the next Sunday there she was, and as she came down the aisle, the congregation applauded. Highly unusual in a Lutheran church. Historic, even. But they’d seen the alternatives and compared to arrogance and sloth, a bare butt looked not so bad.

Wobegon is a town of nice people except for a few cranks who serve to show how nice everyone else is. Self-effacing people. Bare butts are not what Wobegon is about, not at all, and yet—once Lutherans had seen the grabby guy and the thespian and the slacker, they welcomed Liz back joyfully and forgivingly. It’s good for a pastor to experience public shame and be forgiven. You practice on the pastor, and maybe someday you’ll be capable of forgiving yourself.

 

© Garrison Keillor, 2020


Order an autographed hardcover copy →
Preorder the audiobook CD set (Sept 22) →
Order an eBook from the publisher →

Available Now: BOOM TOWN by Garrison Keillor!

In Garrison Keillor’s newest novel, Boom Town, we return to Lake Wobegon, famous from decades of monologues on the classic radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

**Available in Hardcover, Audiobook, and eReader formats**

Lake Wobegon is having a boom year thanks to millennial entrepreneurship—AuntMildred’s.com Gourmet Meatloaf, for example, or Universal Fire, makers of artisanal firewood seasoned with sea salt. Meanwhile, the author flies in to give eulogies at the funerals of five classmates, including a couple whom he disliked, and he finds a wave of narcissism crashing on the rocks of Lutheran stoicism. He is restored by the humor and grace of his old girlfriend Arlene and a visit from his wife, Giselle, who arrives from New York for a big love scene in an old lake cabin.

 

Praise for Boom Town:

“Wonderfully over-the-top. Blisteringly funny, acute, and true. Keillor’s speaking to us with encouragement and empathy about the American life. But at the same time, he’s got our number that way he’s always had it. This book is a tonic.” —Richard Ford

 

“You can’t go home again unless you’re Garrison Keillor and home is Lake Wobegon. Then, of course, it is imperative that you do so—and we are fortunate indeed to tag along and share in the final chapter of the most fascinating and compelling characters ever conjured from the most vivid imagination of America’s greatest storyteller!

In Boom Town, we are invited to catch up as Garrison gets caught up with all of those beautifully flawed human beings that populate and promulgate their mythical town where all the women are finally accounted for, all the men are self-realized or died trying, and all the children are still way above average.” —Martin Sheen

 

Read the first chapter for free >>>

Purchase Boom Town Hardcover >>>

Download the audiobook as mp3s  >>>

Listen to the audiobook via Audible >>>

Read it on Kindle >>>

 

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Time to head for the graveyard and pay respects

Memorial Day is soon upon us, a day that is personal to veterans of foreign wars and rather abstract to us freeloaders and draft dodgers, and seldom the twain shall meet, but this Day is one of those occasions. I speak as one who got a notice from my draft board to report for induction back in 1967 and I wrote to them and said I was opposed to the war and wouldn’t go, and somehow the matter disappeared and the FBI never knocked on my door.

A classmate of mine, Henry Hill, died in Vietnam, in Quang Ngai, at the age of 24, a star athlete and class president, a first lieutenant, infantry commander, died of multiple fragmentation wounds, and I think, “The Army was unable to turn this guy into a deadly killer. He thought he was still on the football team.” I don’t feel responsible for Henry’s death, I think Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey were, and plenty of others who knew what was going on.

We honor Henry for answering the call. There surely were ways he could’ve avoided it. He could’ve found a friendly doctor to find something wrong with him. He was a bright guy and he was Black, he could’ve applied for some advanced training program for which his smarts and race and personality would’ve been prominent assets, but he went with his infantry unit to Vietnam. The nation depended on men like him in 1861 and 1941, the two Good Wars, but the call was the same for the mistaken wars, and those who answered are deserving of equal honor.

Lincoln stood on a platform on the field at Gettysburg in November 1863, four and a half months after the great battle, and while he referred to the “honored dead,” he knew that it had taken the whole four months to make the battlefield decent, that when Lee’s army yielded the field in the heat of July, the Union Army followed close on his tail, and the bodies of thousands of dead lay torn and twisted, swollen, rotting, eventually to be laid in shallow trenches covered with a few inches of dirt, where pigs and wild dogs found them and dragged them out to be chewed upon until finally decent burial took place in the fall, which was not even complete when Lincoln arrived on November 19.

He was sick with smallpox, feverish, had a severe headache, and sat for hours listening to dreadful music and a pompous speech by a gasbag named Edward Everett (“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice,” it begins and goes on for two hours), and then Lincoln delivered his remarks, not even 300 words, in a weak voice, muffled by the restless crowd, numb after Everett’s effusions.

The country was weary of war and ready to sue for peace and a year later Lincoln would’ve lost the election to George McClellan who would’ve settled with the Confederacy and we’d be two nations today, but Sherman’s advance through Georgia and the fall of Atlanta swung the election to Lincoln, and here we are, divided again, confused as ever, gasbags on every hand, mendacious politicians, demagogues, grandstanders, but what Lincoln said that day is even more true now: it is up to us the living to give the nation a new birth so that Henry Hill and all the others did not die in vain.

I think the conservative Mitt Romney has a good point when he says it’s no time to transform America, that we need to reunite the country, which means paying attention to public safety, public health, schools, jobs, infrastructure, which doesn’t lend itself to high-flying oratory but it’s what we all need. Government by a few people for the benefit of some of their people is a dishonor to the dead. Let’s do better.

I write this from Minneapolis, not far from where Henry and I attended high school, a city that got hit hard by COVID and crime and a loss of confidence in city government, which is all Democratic. The happiest place in town is the Twins’ ballpark, a friendly place where you feel safe and can rub elbows with your fellow Minnesotans, and otherwise there’s a sense of unease that calls for a rebirth of freedom to move around and live your life without fear. This is not my problem, I’m irrelevant, the city belongs to the young parents with little kids and mortgage payments, and I’d gently suggest that a conservative Mormon might be a good choice for mayor. Just a thought.

Time is more like it used to be than it was before

I have suddenly become very easygoing thanks to the black hole in our galaxy out near the constellation Sagittarius that astronomers have provided pictures of, a mass equivalent to four million suns, temps in the trillions, with a gravitational force that bends time, which has given me a larger perspective and made me less intolerant of those who say “less” when they mean “fewer” or those who misuse “who” and “whom,” of whom I know a few, plus aggressive drivers, over-friendly waiters, misplaced glasses, spam, a great many formerly irritating things are less so thanks to this new information and I’m grateful to whomever and whoever provided it.

It’s an enormous universe we’re floating around in. We thought it was a big deal to put men on the moon, but in the greater scale of things, that’s like going out the front door to the mailbox. We’re adrift in a sea of endless ignorance and to me this says, “Enjoy your insignificance. Be contented with what you have.” I have a cup of black coffee, a laptop computer, a grandfather clock whose pendulum ticks off the time without bending it, and from the next room I hear my wife getting dressed. She is an independent woman, curious, venturing, an observer of humanity, who never depended on me for entertainment though we do enjoy each other’s company. For me, she intensifies time greatly, which is even better than bending.

Here in Minnesota time bends often and we may get snow on Opening Day of baseball season or a heat wave in December and we become a cold rainy Georgia. So we’re accustomed to disappointment. What’s bewildering is success. Our parents didn’t prepare us for that. They taught us to endure. So when, as sometimes happens, there is something to celebrate, we are torn: will our jubilation be seen as prideful? Will it be a trigger for people whose self-esteem is low? So we stifle ourselves.

I am facing this problem with my 80th birthday coming up in a few months. I’m a medical miracle. Had I been born thirty years earlier, I’d have died fifty years ago. I should charter a plane and fly my family and several Mayo doctors to a Pacific island with zero light pollution where we can lie at night and be amazed by the trillion brilliant pinpoints of the Milky Way and maybe see Sagittarius and feel young and giddy, but I won’t, and if people congratulate me, I’ll say, “Well, I’ve been lucky so far but you never know, there’s probably a pizza deliveryman out there fated to intersect with me and I’ll perish in a pile of pepperoni.”

I suppose the black hole out there is a challenge to Christian faith, to believe that the Creator of the black hole with its four million suns (which is thought to be one of the smaller black holes in the universe) also sent His Son to this planet to tell people, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” assuming that the kingdom includes those four million suns. It is a great deal for the mind to grasp, especially mine, which in recent weeks has been trying to clear my shelves of unread books that I’ll never read, due to vision problems that make small type illegible due to immaculate degeneration.

By my age, however, faith is a settled matter. Unbelief happens in your twenties and you go along enjoying cool incredulity until something happens, the birth of a child, visions of starry sky, perhaps a grasshopper landing in your palm and eating sugar left over from your cookie and then flying away, and you wander into church and fall in with a bunch of believers, and see as through a glass, darkly, but have faith that someday we’ll behold God face to face.

Meanwhile, time is foreshortened. My middle years are a muddle of chronology, but childhood scenes are in clear focus, the thrill of tobogganing down a steep hill and out onto the frozen Mississippi, the girl in seventh grade who challenged me to wrestle and threw me down and kissed me on the lips. I didn’t resist. And then there was the lunch at Dock’s restaurant thirty years ago where I met a woman and we talked for three hours and we’ve been talking ever since. She is funnier than I and if she ever writes a memoir about our marriage, I think you’ll be well entertained. In fact, I’m writing a blurb now. “The only reason I’d come back to Earth would be to read this book.”

 

If you want a story, sit down and I'll find one for you

Storytelling is an art of necessity that you learn when you are young and come home rather late from lying in the grass with Corinne in her backyard talking and holding her hand, your head on her shoulder, observing the slight rise of her breasts as she breathes, and your mother is at the door, wanting an explanation, and rather than get Corinne on your mother’s list of Temptresses, you invent a story in which you were hitchhiking and a drunk picked you up and he was a veteran of D-Day, wounded by the Nazis in defense of democracy, a good man fallen on hard times, and he was too drunk to drive so you took the wheel and drove him home and listened to his long list of troubles and then had to walk home. True? No. Sinful? Hardly.

Storytelling is crucial in panhandling, something I’ve never done but who knows what the future may hold? A bedraggled couple approach in a parking lot, pushing a baby stroller, and say, “Do you have any money?” This is not a good opening line. You need to say, “I’m sorry but my wife and I came down from Bemidji and slept in the park and our money was stolen during the night and we need to take our baby to University Hospital because he needs to take a blood test. Can you spare twenty dollars for cabfare?” This is a plausible tale, your speaking in whole sentences suggests you’re a reasonable person, not stoned on drugs, and you’ve made a specific request. And there’s a baby in the stroller.

President Biden came to Minneapolis to speak at a memorial service for Walter Mondale and he told a story about his arrival at the Senate at the age of 30, soon after the death of his wife and little girl in a car crash, and how Walter and Joan Mondale befriended him, a genuine loving friendship in the midst of a great deal of false bonhomie, and it was a fine story. The humanity of the man was put forward. People need to see this. There is so much slashing and trashing in public discourse that bears no relationship to reality, it’s all special effects and puppetry.

Say what you will about social media, Facebook is where we go to see video clips of my twin grandnieces Ivy and Katherine scootching around on a blanket on the floor of Hieu and Jon’s apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, two tiny girls who will see the 21st century that I will miss out on, but I need to offer them some family history, since their last name is Keillor too. I could tell them about my grandma Dora Powell and her twin sister, Della, who learned Morse code as children so they could give each other answers to questions on tests. After they grew up, they became railroad telegraphers, under the name D. Powell, sharing one uniform, working morning and evening shifts, and then Dora taught in a country school and boarded with a farmer, James Keillor and his widowed sister Mary, across the road. She could see he was a well-read man who loved history and poetry, and one day he crossed the road to school and proposed marriage and, as she said, she “walked away but not so fast that he couldn’t catch me,” and they kissed and he hitched the horses to the carriage and drove to town and found a man to marry them, and that’s where we come from. They fell in love through dinner-table conversation.

My parents, John and Grace, fell in love in 1931, a farmboy and a city girl, and he courted her by singing hymns with the word “grace” in them. They were in love for five years, unable to marry, no money, needed at home, and one day, driving a double team of horses to haul manure to spread on a relative’s field, coming down a steep hill, the horses bolted and John couldn’t hold them and they galloped wildly home and the wagon crashed in a ditch and he was thrown clear, and after he chased down the horses, he borrowed a car and drove to the city and married Grace. Lying in the ditch, his neck not broken, he felt God’s grace shining on him and against the opposition of both families, the two lovers claimed each other without hesitation. We are soft-spoken stoics, modest to a fault, but capable of deep feeling. We love you girls in Vietnam both dearly.

What are fathers for? Anybody's guess

I took my love to dinner last Sunday and told her what an excellent mother she is and it’s absolutely true, I observed her in action all those years, driving our child to appointments, reading to her, rocking her to sleep, listening to her anxieties, attending numerous meetings with teachers, but then the question of my fatherhood arises and I am pleading the Fifth, so no questions, please, I’m well aware of my inadequacies.

I’m not proud, but after my first cup of coffee, when I sit down at the laptop, my self-esteem problems go away. This is the beauty of writing, it takes the mind off one’s failures, failure is simply valuable material for comedy, and thanks to my long-standing habit of never reading my own books, I am perpetually hopeful. When I sit down to write, I am 27 again. Everything is possible.

I made a living in radio and writing fiction, neither of which demand strong character. And now I’m embarked on a new career as an octogenarian stand-up and when I say to the audience: “There was an old man of Bay Ridge who cried out, ‘Sonuvabitch! I got up in the night and on came the light and I find I have peed in the fridge’” and the audience laughs aloud, even the Lutherans, I’m completely unselfconscious. I got the laugh and that’s more than enough, it doesn’t matter that I wear this face of failed fatherhood. Maybe the f.o.f.f. is an asset in comedy.

Vanity is useless for a man my age, like walking around with a bowling ball. Set it down. Get over yourself. A child who has an excellent mother is going to be okay, the father can go write novels. My dad was a good man but he had six kids and I cannot recall a single time when he sat down and had an earnest conversation with me, he was busy working two jobs and tending his garden. So I found surrogate fathers such as Uncle Don and Mr. Faust my history teacher and Bob Lindsay who taught journalism and Irv Letofsky at the paper where I worked and my editor Roger Angell, and that is a great wealth of fatherliness, one really can’t ask for more.

A few town mothers in my hometown were responsible for the cultural life, whatever there was, and then the town fathers destroyed all the magnificent 19th-century buildings, the Carnegie library, the county courthouse, several fine churches, some downtown business blocks, and replaced them with generic boxes. Our great-grandfathers had sought to ennoble the commoners and our fathers trashed the place, and now it’s a hollow shell in the suburban sprawl. You could drive through it and never notice it’s there. So I never go back.

Some things you need to do for yourself, no father can help. I quit a three-pack-daily smoking addiction one day and it disappeared in about a week. I discarded alcohol on my own. I was afraid of being a hopeless alkie, someone who can’t quit booze, so I quit rather than be hopeless. I didn’t want to go to AA and hear sad stories and have to tell my own, so I skipped ahead to sobriety.

When COVID appeared, my love and I went into semi-isolation and the clock became irrelevant, and after decades of hecticity, COVID gave us the simple peasant life of couplehood in our thatched hut of a New York apartment. I was a failed father but I aim to be a good husband. The woman deserves no less. I even wrote her a poem.

M is for her double gin martini.
O is for the onyx diamond pin.
T is for the tiny black bikini.
H is for her handbag, leopardskin.
E is for the emeralds on her finger.
R is for her brand-new red Ferrari.
I’m her lover, writer, passenger, and singer,
And for my failures I am truly sorry.

Father’s Day is sometime in June, I forget when, because we’ve never observed it. Compared to pregnancy and childbirth, the donation of sperm is incidental. She heard the cry from the crib and went up and rocked the child to sleep and I heard the siren call of notoriety and hit the road and wrote on planes and in hotel rooms and walked onstage and did monologues and loved the whole long trek and was it worth it? The jury is still deliberating. But when the woman walks into the room and puts her hands on the man’s shoulders, it’s a beautiful day already.

 

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

June 8, 2022

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

Tower Theatre, Bend OR

Bend, OR

Garrison Keillor and the Hopefuls (Robin and Linda Williams) comes to Tower Theatre in Bend, OR for an evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

June 10, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

Bankhead Theater, Livermore, CA

Livermore, CA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopefuls (Robin and Linda Williams) comes to Bankhead Theater in Livermore, CA for an evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

July 10, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN

A Prairie Home Companion American Revival comes to Ryman Auditorium on July 10, 2022 with Aoife O’Donovan, Joe Newberry, Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Sam Bush, Pat Donohue, Fred Newman, Tim Russell and others.

July 25, 2022

Monday

7:30 p.m.

Brown County Playhouse, Nashville, IN

Nashville, IN

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Nashville, IN for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

July 27, 22

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

RESCHEDULED Midland Theatre, Newark OH

Newark, OH

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

July 28, 2022

Thursday

8:00 p.m.

Rescheduled The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Kent, OH

March 4 in Kent, OH Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

July 30, 2022

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Door County Auditorium, Fish Creek, WI

Fish Creek, WI

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Fish Creek, Wisconsin for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

August 20, 2022

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, WI

Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, WI

Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Friends (Fred Newman, Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Richard Kriehn & Dan Magraw) bring their show to Big Top Chautauqua for a performance of night of laughter, song and The News from Lake Wobegon.

September 16, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

The Bend Theatre, West Bend, WI

West Bend, WI

Garrison Keillor brings his show to West Bend, WI for a performance of sing-a-longs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

October 9, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Paramount Hudson Valley, Peekskill, NY

Peekskill, NY

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Peekskill NY. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unite us.

Radio

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On this day in 1946 English-born poet, W.H. Auden became a U.S. citizen. “It’s a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.”

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Writing

Time to head for the graveyard and pay respects

Memorial Day is soon upon us, a day that is personal to veterans of foreign wars and rather abstract to us freeloaders and draft dodgers, and seldom the twain shall meet, but this Day is one of those occasions. I speak as one who got a notice from my draft board to report for induction back in 1967 and I wrote to them and said I was opposed to the war and wouldn’t go, and somehow the matter disappeared and the FBI never knocked on my door.

A classmate of mine, Henry Hill, died in Vietnam, in Quang Ngai, at the age of 24, a star athlete and class president, a first lieutenant, infantry commander, died of multiple fragmentation wounds, and I think, “The Army was unable to turn this guy into a deadly killer. He thought he was still on the football team.” I don’t feel responsible for Henry’s death, I think Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey were, and plenty of others who knew what was going on.

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Time is more like it used to be than it was before

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It’s an enormous universe we’re floating around in. We thought it was a big deal to put men on the moon, but in the greater scale of things, that’s like going out the front door to the mailbox. We’re adrift in a sea of endless ignorance and to me this says, “Enjoy your insignificance. Be contented with what you have.” I have a cup of black coffee, a laptop computer, a grandfather clock whose pendulum ticks off the time without bending it, and from the next room I hear my wife getting dressed. She is an independent woman, curious, venturing, an observer of humanity, who never depended on me for entertainment though we do enjoy each other’s company. For me, she intensifies time greatly, which is even better than bending.

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If you want a story, sit down and I’ll find one for you

Storytelling is an art of necessity that you learn when you are young and come home rather late from lying in the grass with Corinne in her backyard talking and holding her hand, your head on her shoulder, observing the slight rise of her breasts as she breathes, and your mother is at the door, wanting an explanation, and rather than get Corinne on your mother’s list of Temptresses, you invent a story in which you were hitchhiking and a drunk picked you up and he was a veteran of D-Day, wounded by the Nazis in defense of democracy, a good man fallen on hard times, and he was too drunk to drive so you took the wheel and drove him home and listened to his long list of troubles and then had to walk home. True? No. Sinful? Hardly.

Storytelling is crucial in panhandling, something I’ve never done but who knows what the future may hold? A bedraggled couple approach in a parking lot, pushing a baby stroller, and say, “Do you have any money?” This is not a good opening line. You need to say, “I’m sorry but my wife and I came down from Bemidji and slept in the park and our money was stolen during the night and we need to take our baby to University Hospital because he needs to take a blood test. Can you spare twenty dollars for cabfare?” This is a plausible tale, your speaking in whole sentences suggests you’re a reasonable person, not stoned on drugs, and you’ve made a specific request. And there’s a baby in the stroller.

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What are fathers for? Anybody’s guess

I took my love to dinner last Sunday and told her what an excellent mother she is and it’s absolutely true, I observed her in action all those years, driving our child to appointments, reading to her, rocking her to sleep, listening to her anxieties, attending numerous meetings with teachers, but then the question of my fatherhood arises and I am pleading the Fifth, so no questions, please, I’m well aware of my inadequacies.

I’m not proud, but after my first cup of coffee, when I sit down at the laptop, my self-esteem problems go away. This is the beauty of writing, it takes the mind off one’s failures, failure is simply valuable material for comedy, and thanks to my long-standing habit of never reading my own books, I am perpetually hopeful. When I sit down to write, I am 27 again. Everything is possible.

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Nobody asked, but I’ll tell you anyway

I come from Minnesota, the modest K-shaped state with the bump on top, sitting on the front line of defense against Canada, predominantly white Protestant but trying not to be too obvious about it, maybe grow a beard and eat oysters on the half shell and read poetry to raise questions in people’s minds. Sometimes we’re called the North Star State, sometimes the Gopher State, but really we’re the Recovery State, where Hazelden was born and various programs for curing chem-dep and other addictions. AA is big. There are thousands of big rooms full of folding chairs where people hear accusatory talks and then break up into discussion groups.

Bob Dylan was from here but he loved Woody Guthrie, the itinerant life, the train whistle in the night, surrealist poetry, none of which are popular here, and we have no idea where he is now. Some say he has a big farm near Moose Lake but who cares? Prince was a greater musician but came to a tragic end, there being no good recovery program for addicts so rich and famous. Fitzgerald is our one great writer in the American Pantheon and he was good but no Hemingway.

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Driving across Indiana today

I come from low-key Minnesotans who like to end a sentence with then or now — “So what are you up to then?” — which is intended to soften the question and avoid an accusatory tone and if you said, “Oh, just waiting to see what turns up,” they might say, “Sounds good then,” so when I heard that the Supremes plan to toss out Justice Harry Blackmun’s decision in Roe v. Wade, I thought, “So what kind of a deal is that then, for crying out loud,” which is my people’s idea of profanity but doesn’t call down fire and brimstone then.

He was a low-key Minnesota Republican who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood of St. Paul and got scholarshipped to Harvard and returned to Minnesota to be resident counsel at the Mayo Clinic, and the heart of Roe v. Wade is the reluctance to interfere in a woman’s intimate life and dictate the answer to an agonizing question, which reflects a Midwestern temperament. We would interfere with a big kid bullying a little kid, or a child torturing an animal, or some other act of cruelty we witness, but the Mississippi law the Supremes are prepared to uphold is a radical invasion by the state of a woman’s life. That’s what sort of deal it is.

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Kindness: you look and you’ll see it.

I’ve been a rhymer ever since I was twelve and read the limerick about the young girl of Madras who had a remarkable ass and so when I read about a trans legislator in Kansas, it started my engine, but she turns out to be a nice woman named Stephanie Byers (choirs, lyres) who is only advocating kindness for her kind, no big deal in my book, and I looked up the girl from Madras. It’s one of the only limericks that accuses the reader of unseemly thoughts — her ass is “not soft, round, and pink as you probably think, but the kind with long ears that eats grass,” and I loved this as a kid, having grown up evangelical and knowing something about righteous fever.

I’ve gone through my own fevers back in my youth, I marched, I manifestoed, and I am still capable of high dudgeon, but I’ve come to have a higher regard for kindness than righteousness, especially the sort that burns other people at the stake, which we see more of these days.

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One more word about Twitter, then I’ll shut up

I once knew a librarian who at age 34 fell in love with a poet she met in a bar who, though sober, announced that he adored her. For years she’d only dated men who were looking for a sympathetic sister, but this fellow lusted after her and suddenly she was shopping for a bigger bed and learning to samba. The problem was that his poems were bleak and not ingeniously bleak but dull bleak, disconnected dark images of dread and dismay. He wrote one for her and she said, “It’s nice,” and he said, “I can tell you don’t like it,” and she said, “It’s sort of dark,” and he ran out the door (he was living with her) and she hasn’t heard from him since.

It can be dangerous to tell the truth. Why couldn’t she have said, “I love it, it’s one of your best”? His poems weren’t hurting anybody. Polar bears weren’t dying from them, they weren’t poisoning the rivers. Let the man be a bad poet and eventually he’ll find his way into marketing or lawn mowing or some other gainful employment.

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What macaroni and cheese means to me

Men my age are not riding high these days compared to back in the Renaissance or the 19th century so I am taking a back seat and not getting fussed up. I appreciate new stuff like YouTube and the Unsubscribe option and the peanut butter latte, but I don’t know who famous people are anymore — Abe Lincoln, Al Kaline, A.J. Liebling are on my A-list but I wouldn’t know Adele if she walked up and offered me her autograph. I’m out of it. So I keep my mouth shut. I’ve listened to people discussing their loyalty to particular coffees from specific regions of Kenya or Nicaragua and I don’t weigh in on this. I’d be okay with Maxwell House Instant. Coffee is coffee. Debating it is like arguing about doormats. You walk in, you wipe your feet, it’s not a transformative experience. I feel the same way about gender: it’s your beeswax, not mine. Be who you want to be but don’t expect me to call you them or it or us.

I drink coffee because it is a warm liquid and I accept the myth that it enlivens the brain though probably hot water from the tap would serve as well. My coffee habit is a cultural choice: I don’t want to be part of the tea crowd, it’d mean I’d have to have a ponytail and wear linen clothing and have a cockadoodle named Josephine. I drink coffee and have short hair and jeans with a hole in the knee.

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The country’s problems solved in 800 words

I was in Minnesota for a while in April but weather systems can’t read a calendar and they were delivering more of November, which is satisfying to us Minnesotans. We are great complainers. God made children short so they wouldn’t have far to fall and God put us in Minnesota because joyfulness is absolutely not our thing, Easter is a holiday we dread, the enforced jubilation, the trumpets in the choir loft, and when you wake up Easter morning and a cold rain is falling it’s very very satisfying.

I went to Minnesota alone and it was interesting discover that without my wife, I don’t know where things are or how to get the washer to work when it stops in mid-cycle and won’t resume. I can’t make sense of the instruction manual so I call her back in New York and she tells me to press START and hold it in and I do and the washer resumes. It’s downright embarrassing — my dad did his own auto repair and carpentry and I can’t operate an automatic washer. Thank goodness I still have a sense of shame.

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If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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