Reading: Shy Guy Gets Raunchy | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Shy Guy Gets Raunchy 

Poor Garrison Keillor set out to be daring and wound up being sophomoric.

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Garrison Keillor--public radio personality, sage of Lake Wobegon, and successful writer--is a performer, these days, grown increasingly stale. Back in the early 1980s, as A Prairie Home Companion moved from cult favorite to broad popularity, Keillor's blend of gentle satire and wistful illuminations seemed attractive and unique. But repetition leads to death, and in American Radio Company, his present Saturday-evening variety show, the same old cute menu has become tired and cliched--more tales from the town that time forgot, more little jokes about Minnesotans and New Yorkers, more good-timey songs and skits--all served up by a host who's lately shown signs of restiveness. Keillor seems to have become increasingly bored and cynical pandering to an audience that wants a show as similar to those that preceded it as a daily comic strip and just as reliably comfortable.

His new novel is partly about just such a process of degradation: the way in which the demands of the popular media turn everything into pap, and the cynicism this breeds in its peformers and managers. The comic story of a radio station (of course) in Minneapolis (natch), WLT: A Radio Romance is a satiric picture of the development of the mass media in this country from the 20s through the 40s. It's a kind of dirty novel--not erotic, exactly, but filled with ribald jokes and situations--which looks to be an act of rebellion on Keillor's part, a lashing out against the bland expectations of his audience.

Not a bad-sounding project. You hope, maybe, for a funny, cutting story, one that reveals something interesting about the depths of Garrison Keillor the man while satirizing the restrictions he labors under as a performer. Well, if that's what you hope for, too bad. The sensibilities animating the satire and rebellion here are unfortunately rather like those of a prepubescent boy. Rather than the earthy humor he seems to aim for, we get juvenescent raunch and bathroom jokes start to finish. In the end even the vision of degradation is compromised, by the creation of a character whose purity of spirit enables him to achieve stardom without soiling his soul--a character whose existence can only be seen as a self-serving justification of Keillor's own career. If these are the man's depths, then I'd rather he stuck to superficialities.

WLT's subtitle is a play on words--Keillor's novel encompasses a romance with radio as well as a love story involving one of the characters. It's the tale of a radio station, WLT--With Lettuce and Tomato--more or less accidentally begun by brothers Ray and Roy Soderbjerg as an adjunct to their restaurant. Seventy-five pages in, the book's hero enters: Francis With, a shy boy from North Dakota who gets into radio through his Uncle Art, changes his name to Frank White, becomes the station's gofer, has adventures, finally gets the girl he loves, goes on to fame and fortune as a TV newscaster, and lives happily ever after. But that's just a running subplot. There's a panoply of other characters and a few other themes.

"I tell you, one thing about radio is that a man can get laid faster than anywhere else," goes a bit of dialogue from WLT, and it voices one of the novel's main subjects. This radio station is a place where everyone's getting it on with everyone else, and those who aren't doing it are talking or thinking about it. Again, the scenario sounds possibly promising. An erotic novel would be fun, and a funny erotic novel would be great. But WLT turns out to be neither fun nor funny.

"Art was a connoisseur of women and to pass muster with him they had to score high in the Bosom Division, which he divided into: nice titties, torpedoes, real knockers, a pair of headlights, major bozongas, and a shirtful of hooters." How's that for sexual humor? More tender in his appreciation of women is Ray Soderbjerg, whose adulteries form one strand of the story: "I somehow knew she was going to go to bed with me the moment I looked in her eyes. . . . We had wine with dinner and the wine made her frisky. . . . She stood on a chair and I undressed her in full light and I believe nobody had ever looked at her before. She was voluptuous in that Swedish way."

And there's more--not just sex, but lots of farting (" . . . she leans slightly to the left and out it comes, silent and deadly, smells like death on a bun"), toilet humor (" . . . Dutch Brand Coffee went downhill, a tragic victim of the success of Dutch Toilet Cleanser, which made people reluctant to drink it"), and other body-function inanities (" . . . a bout of throat-clearing, like a swamp being drained, big gobs of phlegm rattling--and then he retched, a big dry heave," the joke being that all this noise is going out over the air, ha ha). And then there are characters like Marjery Moore, who plays Little Becky on the Friendly Neighbor show and likes to talk dirty and goose her colleagues ("She'd cry "Whoooo' and grab up into your hinder. . . . It was a deep goose, a serious grab with her thumb up his bunghole").

But isn't Keillor simply creating character, mood, and atmosphere with these lame bits? Of course. But he's also trying to be funny--and failing pretty dismally, unless you're about 12 years old (and not too discriminating). He's also, it would seem, attempting to be shocking, playing the bad boy, confounding his fans by satirizing the folksiness they've saddled him with. Poor Garrison. The self-proclaimed "shy person" has set out to be daring, only to end up being sophomoric.

WLT is not much as a novel. Everyone in it who recounts a story (an oft-used device in the book) sounds an awful lot like Garrison Keillor doing the same on his radio show. Characters are defined through idiosyncrasies (like Marjery's scatological hijinks) and never developed beyond that--a procedure that can work OK in the sketches Keillor is used to delivering but that gets tedious in a novel.

There are many signs of hasty, careless writing, even more deadly considering Keillor is attempting a historical novel. At one point our hero, Frank White, is graduating high school in 1947; 16 pages later he's starting at WLT, age 15; a bit later the Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor and Frank is working at the station. Keillor has a country music group using electric guitar and singing cheating songs in the 1930s--an innovation and a subject that didn't appear till the following decade--and describes Frank and his love taking in a movie featuring Deanna Durbin in the early 1950s although that actress retired from the screen in 1948. Small points, but Keillor's neglect shows a kind of contempt for both his characters and his public, a contempt that runs through much of his recent radio work as well as this book.

And finally, there's the Francis With/Frank White character. He's a typical Keillor persona, wistful, innocent, and humble--qualities that, while again they might sail in a sketch, are too precious by half when reiterated at novel's length. When WLT's last chapter shows White pursued by a scandal-mongering biographer determined to dig up dirt that doesn't exist, we recall Keillor's well-known fury at public scrutiny of his own private life (publicity concerning a midlife love affair that reportedly goaded him into dropping A Prairie Home Companion and fleeing abroad a few years ago). The biographer gets hit by a truck while dreaming of the millions he'll make from his book--and White emerges as a uniquely self-serving Keillor creation, and self-indulgent by considerably more than half.

But then, the same could be said of the whole book.

WLT: A Radio Romance by Garrison Keillor, Viking, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Steve Mendelson.

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