FICTION The angst-ridden daughter of a God-loving denizen of Lake Wobegon tries to make sense of her mother's secret life and the very odd request she has made for the disposal of her ashes.
Whether you love him or hate him, Garrison Keillor is a bona fide genius whose prolific body of work, from his novels to his essays to his weekly radio program, has given the world an honest and uniquely Midwestern voice that rivals Mark Twain's in its evocation of all that's right and wrong with Americans. He does nothing to dispel this lofty appraisal with his new novel, "Pontoon," a funny and lyrical portrait of another generation of Wobegonians. While there are other authors mining a similar vein (the fine Southern writer T.R. Pearson comes to mind), no one does it with the heartfelt eloquence, humor and depth that Keillor does.
As with Keillor's best work, the story in "Pontoon" is the people who inhabit it. The minimal plot is downright Chekhovian; that is, nothing happens, except that people's happiness is created or destroyed. In an author's note, Keillor says the book is a retelling of a story he has told hundreds of times to live audiences, and as you read it you can't help but hear his dusky baritone reeling off the words.
This in no way diminishes the pleasure of reading it on the page. The first sentence, "Evelyn was an insomniac so when they said she died in her sleep, you have to question that," not only perfectly sets the tone for what's to come, but it's right up there with "Marley was dead, to begin with" and "Call me Ishmael" as great openings of a novel. Keillor writes so simply and seemingly effortlessly about the trials and joys of dealing with life's slings and arrows (family members, in other words) that one can't help but remember that things that seem simple and effortless rarely are, and you admire the writing all the more for never seeing the work that went into it, only the lovely result.
The events of the book -- an ill-considered wedding, a funeral involving a bowling ball and a parasail, a visit by a congregation of Lutheran ministers from Denmark -- take a back seat to the lives, and more particularly the inner lives, of the characters.
The story begins with a death and ends with a re-birth. Evelyn Peterson ("Her name was all wrong. Evelyns should be plump ladies in spiffy outfits who collect salt and pepper sets and play canasta and fuss at their husbands. ... The little girl should have been a Therese or a Catherine but she got evelyned") is a churchgoing, simple-living older woman with a secret life that comes to light only after she passes away. Her daughter Barbara lives three houses down and is an alcoholic ("In recent years Barbara had developed a crème de cacao problem") whose already angst-ridden life is further complicated by her mother's desire to be cremated, have her ashes put in a bowling ball and dropped into the lake without any further fuss.
From this simple if odd request, a chain of events is set in motion that causes numerous family members, for better or worse, to closely examine their lives and provides Keillor with ample opportunity to include scripture, poetry and his trademark brand of satire, both gentle ("He was one of those old guys who'd run the county for fifty years and whose passion was roads. Roads were what government was all about in their books. Land use didn't interest them, except they were against zoning, it was all about roads, grading roads and paving roads and repairing them in the spring. ... You need good roads") and scathing ("Bishop Ringsak had had it with the Danes. What a bunch of princesses! Finicky about food and fussy about hotels. ... So he handed them off to Fred and said, 'Don't let them preach and keep them away from women. They can booze all they like. They will anyway. Just try to keep their names out of the paper.'").
Keillor wisely never mocks his own characters. He simply lets them speak for themselves and allows us the pleasure of making whatever judgments we deem fit. And in a nice touch, he cleverly uses the jumping rhymes of girls skipping rope like a Greek chorus, slyly commenting on the action.
Interestingly, much like Keillor's recent film "A Prairie Home Companion,"Pontoon" is largely about mortality and all its consequences (in fact, "Pontoon" could -- and might -- be an excellent film). Keillor, now in his mid-60s, seems through his characters to be struggling with the realization of his own life's finiteness (angels are important figures in this book and the "A Prairie Home Companion" movie) and what that realization means in terms of truly and fully living. While all of us of a certain age share that struggle, Keillor deftly illuminates and expresses every aspect of it far better than any of us ever could.
This is not Keillor's best book -- that would be "Lake Wobegon Days," an astonishing achievement that should be taught in high school literature classes alongside "Huckleberry Finn" and "Great Expectations" -- but that's a bit like saying "Othello" is not Shakespeare's best play, or the "Eroica" is not Beethoven's best symphony: they're still awfully damn good and we're thrilled to have them. "Pontoon," like a soft summer day or a favorite hymn, is an unmitigated pleasure.
Peter Moore, of St. Paul, is an actor and director. His production of the new musical "How to Mow the Lawn" opens Friday at Old Arizona Studio in Minneapolis.