After Dark: Keillor on Lake Wobegon, cities and himself

05:00 AM, Jul 28, 2013

Garrison Keillor, here in New York City, will be at CMAC on Thursday. (ANDY KROPA//Getty Images for Norman Mailer Center)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion Radio Romance Tour,” with with musical guests including fiddler Sara Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek; The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band; and storyteller, sound-effects performer Fred Newman.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Finger Lakes Community College, near Canandaigua.
Tickets: $35, $55 and $75.00 for the pavilion, $20 advance $25 the day of the show, available at ticketmaster.com, (800) 745-3000 and the Blue Cross Arena box office.

Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion — his long-running entertainment confection, modeled after the radio variety shows of his youth — soothes a stressed-out nation each Saturday afternoon. His books carry the same distanced, observational, concerned, comforting tone of a man watching his small-town neighbors from the shade of his verandah. No matter how comic their actions, Keillor is always polite in his observations, never mocking. This is what you would expect of a man from Lake Wobegon, Minn.

That’s the fantasy. In reality, the Garrison Keillor you think you know does not exist.

I am a city boy,” Keillor says. “I live in the city of St. Paul, and some of the time I live in the city of New York. People in New York are terrifically friendly people. Ask for directions, that’s the way you start a conversation in New York. I love walking out the door, walking out into the street, looking at the little shops, sitting in cafés and drinking coffee, seeing these people you don’t really know. If you want, you can stop and talk to them sometimes. ‘Hello, how are you, beautiful day….’ Talk about the Twins game, last night they rallied against the Angels, scored six runs against them in the 10th inning. Small things, just small talk. I love that. I love that. To me that is one of the glories of life, this occasional contact with people you sort of know.”

Keillor’s demeanor is infused with the familiar mechanisms of A Prairie Home Companion. When answering a question, he turns it into a narration. Asked if this soft-spoken soul ever comes out of character and allows himself to express a bit of road rage, Keillor responds with a monologue on how he doesn’t really drive much.

Thursday at Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, Keiller will be the 6-foot, 3-inch, 70-year-old man in red shoes. The music will feel as if it is being created on a front porch; there will be sound effects, stories will be spun, jokes told. He didn’t invent this machine. He merely remembered it.

Taking A Prairie Home Companion on the road is refreshing, Keillor says. “We don’t have to watch the clock since it’s not being broadcast.” Odd things happen, which is good for a show that moves on an axle of curiosity.

When Keillor first got on stage in Boise, Idaho, earlier this summer, he immediately realized that the audience was staring into a blinding sun. “I took my microphone and I walked out into the audience, and I walked almost all the the way to the back, so they could turn around and look at me,” he says. “I had to look into the sun, but I’m just one person. And they were so grateful. You felt this love of 5,000 people.”

Keillor started off as a small-town Minnesota kid, but became a city boy at age 13 when a teacher gave him a copy of The New Yorker. He decided he wanted to write for the magazine some day. That happened, and Keillor remains a man of literature. He hosts a second radio show, The Writer’s Almanac, and owns Common Good Books, G. Keillor, Prop., in St. Paul. “People still walk in the front door of my store and walk past tables piled with books, and shelves,” he says. The customers are not searching for e-readers. “They still want to hold writing in their hands.”

It is his profession that drives him into the cities, the cafés. “I’m a writer, and writing is a solitary life,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it a lonely life. It’s not onerous, it’s not painful, at least I don’t find it so. But working alone, you crave contact with people. And this is a sort of contact to me that is more and more precious in these days of Facebook, texting and tweeting and all of these marvels that surround us.”

While Like Wobegon is the small-town America relished by conservatives, the benevolent literary deity watching over it is an admittedly progressive thinker. “No doubt about it, I’m kind of an old-fashioned Midwestern liberal,” Keillor says. Although, he insists, “I’m really past the point of trying to convert people.”

Yet subversive conversion may be at work on A Prairie Home Companion, where old-time values sometimes strive for relevance in today’s harsh news cycles.

Lake Wobegon is a small town in Minnesota, so gun ownership is nothing unusual,” Keillor says. “It’s connected to hunting, and hunters have guns. But the idea of owning assault weapons is weird. I do not come from hunters, but my family knew hunters, and came directly from a world in which a gun was a tool to kill deer and hunt varmints. It has a purpose. It is not symbolic. Gun ownership as ownership of assault weapons is way beyond Lake Wobegon. It has very little to do with people in Lake Wobegon.”

Seen from the 21st century, it is a world gone upside-down.

Cities are more like small towns these days than small towns are,” he says. “In small towns, people are in a rush and they work awfully hard. The Upper West Side, where I live, is more like Lake Wobegon than Lake Wobegon is.”

The real small towns of America often cannot sustain the kind of folksy values seen and heard in A Prairie Home Companion. “The economy is not that good out there, they’re just really struggling,” Keillor says.

I’m a city boy. I invented Lake Wobegon out of the lives of my country relatives, whom I adored. The town that I tell stories about is a literary creation. And it’s in a long line of fictional small towns that go back to Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis and all. It’s simply an offbeat literary performance.

It’s not an accurate portrayal of Minnesota or the northern states. Some people think it is, bless their hearts. But I don’t think it is.”

And that’s all the news from Lake Wobegon. It doesn’t exist anymore.