Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Book of Guys: Good Medicine from Garrison Keillor

I needed to laugh about ten days ago, and I trolled my shelves for medicine. It came down to a choice between PG Wodehouse and Garrison Keillor, and I went with the Lutheran.

I don't know of a popular American humorist with greater range than the host of NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion,” who writes reports from Lake Wobegon and pokes fun at his beloved home state of Minnesota, which happens to be my home state too.

The title of this collection of short fictions—several of which previously appeared in The New Yorker and Harper's—seemed to promise a comic meditation on the state of manhood today. And some of the stories deliver on this promise.

But trade publishing is always a compromise between artistic integrity (what the author has of it) and commercial calculation (a publisher is in business to stay in business, let me tell you). And so it's easy to imagine an editor at Viking in the early 1990s (this was published in 1993) saying to Keillor, Hey, G-man, let's find a pretext for a new collection. The men's movement is hot right now. Let's do a book about men.

The title's no lie: Each story is about a guy, from “Gary Keillor,” the author's somewhat fictionalized younger self, to a boy raised by wolves ("Omoo the Wolf Boy”), to a Greek god who becomes a minister, in hopes of seducing the minister's wife ("Zeus the Lutheran”). In between are wild flights about President H. W. George Bush (seen fishing in the Potomac with Willie Horton, then coping diffidently with a barbarian invasion of Chicago) and a revisionist history of Earl Grey tea. (It wasn't named after a British prime minister but rather after the middle child of an American congressman. But I bet you knew that.)

I laughed and laughed and then grew tired of laughing. I guess that meant I’m ready for something serious again. But it’s always good knowing you’ve got medicine like Keillor and Wodehouse on your shelf. I won’t hesitate to take another dose when needed.

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