It is Saturday afternoon in St. Paul, and while ordinary citizens muck through the slush outside, 640 happy-to-be-there fans of Garrison Keillor are settled into the faded World Theater, ready to be touched, unbent and slowed down. Up on the stage a tall (6’4″) pug-faced man in a too small white suit is leading them into the enchanted world of Lake Wobegon (pronounced WOE-be-gone), Minn.—”the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve,” says Keillor, “where all the women are strong, and the men are good-looking, and where all the children are above average…” The crowd is transported, as are two million Keillor fans nationwide who are tuning in on National Public Radio, among them Minnie Pearl in Nashville and Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, a transplanted Minnesotan who receives his nostalgia fix in suburban Virginia.
Though Keillor’s weekly Prairie Home Companion is uninterrupted by commercials, it does have a few homey “sponsors,” among them Powdermilk Biscuits, “which give shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done,” and Bob’s Bank, “there in the little green mobile home on Main Street.” Not far from Bob’s stands the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian, where the locals in their cups relieve themselves now and then. Nearby too is Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, where the last of the Norwegian lye-cured lutfisk is on sale this week.
Of course, all of Lake Wobegon exists only in the quirky, brilliant mind of raconteur Keillor, 41, who also writes droll short stories for the New Yorker (many collected in the best-seller Happy to Be Here) and wry essays for other sophisticated journals. The man is so self-contained—not to say painfully shy—that it must take a heap of powdermilk biscuits to keep him propped up before the crowd at the World and the sellout audiences the show attracts on its infrequent trips out of state. Says his friend Russell Ringsack, “When he gets up in front of a microphone, he really bares himself. He’d never be able to talk so openly in person.”
At once a full-blooded hick and a man of letters, Keillor turns out fiction, journalism and radio tales alike on a word processor in a stark white cubicle at Minnesota Public Radio. His space is inhabited too by the works and ghosts of his idols: Thurber, Liebling, Perelman, E.B. White and, incongruously, country singer George Jones.
The original Lake Wobegon might well be Anoka, Minn., where Keillor was born and bred a fundamentalist Protestant, the third of six children of a railroad mail clerk who moonlighted as a free-lance carpenter. A failure as a Boy Scout, Keillor was also slow learning to read. “But when I finally got the knack of it,” he says, “I couldn’t get enough. My mother had to hunt for me in closets, under stairs, on piles of old magazines. I was without shame.” A kindly English teacher gave him his first copy of the New Yorker at 13, and he instantly changed his name from Gary to Garrison to create a pseudonym more worthy of that magazine’s august pages. “A writer’s life seemed fabulous,” he says. “You’d sit down and make things up and somehow, some way, be paid for it. But more than being paid for it, people would read it and admire it.”
He stayed “a very long time” at the University of Minnesota because his flirtations with journalism kept interfering with his studies. Finally, he took off for Boston on a Greyhound to try the big time. “The Atlantic Monthly was very polite,” he says, “but I think they could tell I had just changed clothes in a public washroom.” Crushed, Keillor went reeling back to Minnesota for a master’s in English but was lured away by his old job as an announcer at the campus radio station.
Three years after his marriage to a fellow student in 1969, Keillor sold his first story to the New Yorker. The magazine’s first check arrived almost simultaneously with his son, Jason. Keillor immediately quit his radio job to concentrate on his writing. While his wife went off to work, Keillor played househusband and discovered the shock of full-time parenthood. “Having a child is like having a live radio show,” he once told an audience. “You start out in a sort of ecstasy, and then later on you realize this is not a natural talent. This is nothing anyone would be good at.” When the wolf got “pretty near to the door,” Keillor took a job with fledgling Minnesota Public Radio hosting a live classical-music show, which gradually evolved into the mix of bluegrass, Bach and bumpkin that is the musical background for the town of Lake Wobegon.
Though Keillor has lately assumed cult-figure stature, the hubbub seems not to have touched him. Divorced 10 years ago (“It wasn’t just the writing, but the hours I spent at it”), he now has another lady in his life, the daughter of the prototype for Lake Wobegon’s bass fisherman-dentist who tells fish to “bite down, hard.” She shares his Victorian home with him and his cats, Tuna and Ralph. Keillor owns only the one suit he wears in performance, chain-smokes Camels and fixes himself snacks of Kraft macaroni and cheese. He will not analyze the true meaning of Lake Wobegon, but his fans invariably try.
Ventures Justice Blackmun: “All of us, being shy people, can sympathize with Garrison.” Some see in Prairie Home Companion a calming refuge from the age of celebrity. Says Minnie Pearl: “You have different priorities in Lake Wobegon. Neighbors are important, and little doings take precedence over big doings. I just love it.”