"People Would Think You're Common"


Leaving Home, by Garrison Keillor, New York: Viking, 244 pages, $18.95

The durable popularity of the public radio program "A Prairie Home Companion," which finally ended its 13-year run last summer, was something of a mystery. In an increasingly urban nation, it was rural in flavor. In a fast-paced era, it was resolutely unhurried. Most anomalous was that in a period when the visual media are increasingly dominant, it was a throwback to the golden age of radio.

But to describe the show is to explain its success. It appealed to Americans' memory of what they used to be and made them not only miss it but laugh at it. The pastoral ideal runs deep in the American psyche, and it was that ideal that lay at the heart of "A Prairie Home Companion." It was a connection to the disappearing world of our ancestors.

Of course, the show would not have gained the following it did without the crucial ingredient of host Garrison Keillor. What he brought, besides his unassuming warmth and humor, was a gift for spinning tales. Oral storytelling, which once served the function now performed by books, newspapers, television, and movies, is a dying art. Keillor made his name by a valiant effort to revive it. His third book is a compilation of three dozen of the monologues he performed each week—rambling, humorous reports on the week's events in his fictional hometown of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota, "the little town that time forgot and that the decades cannot improve." Though they suffer a little for the change in medium, they are a reminder of Keillor's capacity not only for storytelling but for empathy.

His characters are ordinary people with an ordinary talent for doing ridiculous things. He tackles a variety of subjects. Take marital discord. We meet Florian Krebsbach, who gets so flustered at being bawled out by his wife that he absent-mindedly drives away while she is in a truckstop restroom. When he returns home, anticipating the worst, he finds her profoundly relieved and grateful that he has not left her for good: "He was going to tell her, but he didn't. It occurred to him that leaving her on account of passionate anger might be better than forgetting her because of being just plain dumb.…That night he lay awake, incredulous. That she thought he was capable of running away, like a John Barrymore or something. Seventy-two years old, married forty-eight years, and she thought that maybe it hadn't worked out and he might fly the coop like people do in songs? Amazing woman."

Turning to cultural anachronisms, Keillor recalls chicken butchering day at his Aunt Flo's: "Dad and Aunt Flo are country people, and in the country you do as you like, but Mother and I grew up in town, so we worry more about what people think, and when you have forty-seven chickens in the garage, you know the neighbors are talking. People in Lake Woebegon don't slaughter chickens anymore, not in their backyards, it's not considered decent. Oh, you might do one or two, in the evening, but forty-seven in broad daylight, a chicken massacre—people would think you're common."

Keillor also grapples with applied theology. Of a Lutheran given to frequent fits of repentance, he writes, "Granted, we're born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions is too many. God didn't mean for us to feel guilt all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use."

These samples suggest Keillor's favorite themes. One is the chronic suspicion that each of us is faintly ridiculous and the fear that others will discover the fact. Another is the strong but often constricting embrace of family and friends, particularly in a small town. Keillor is nostalgic about his past but generally not sentimental: Visiting their mother's grave, a woman says to her sister, "Do you know that I still hear her sometimes—I'm washing dishes or ironing, and I hear her say, Oh Irene you're doing that all wrong." Another is a Christian perspective, which doesn't necessarily mean that Keillor is religious. The Puritans strove to be in the world, but not of it. His characters feel that same distance from their natural environment, but not entirely by choice. They know that life holds many obligations and much pain.

Keillor identifies with those who don't feel entirely at home in the world, while trying gently to remind his listeners of the beauty and sweetness of the most mundane lives. His monologues, and in fact the show itself, were a weekly love letter to the world around him. His recurring prayer is, "Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough." The purpose of this book is to help us love it more. It's a worthy task, winningly handled.

Stephen Chapman is a syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.