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The residents of fictional Lake Wobegon, those gently yearning small-town folks, must certainly, after all this time and repetition, be an anvil around the neck of creator and multigenre writer and performer Garrison Keillor. But is it also possible that Keillor himself has begun to feel like a dead weight to them as well? In "Pilgrims," his new Wobegon novel, Keillor takes the gang on a European outing that provides a fair number of grins and some entertaining, if not particularly thrilling, suspense. But Keillor also introduces a plot device that seems to hint that he's beginning to feel as much of a burden to his creations' well-being as they are to his own artistic integrity.
The plot of "Pilgrims" is standard Wobegon with a slight geographic twist, taking a core group of Keillor's recurring characters to Italy. The concocted, unlikely premise for the gang's European excursion has high school English teacher Margie Krebsbach recruiting a pilgrimage to the Italian grave of former Wobegon resident and purported World War II hero August "Gussie" Norlander. A little hokey and convenient intrigue results in a tourist van-size contingent of Wobegon regulars -- and, notably, "radio host Gary Keillor," more on that in a moment -- setting off to the ancient city of Rome for some culture shock of the cute, tepid, why-do-Americans-want-to-eat-at-McDonalds-when-they-travel variety.
While the rest of her townfolk are arguing over whether to try new things and telling long, digressive stories about people back in Lake Wobegon, Margie is embracing La Dolce Vita. And her mission to carry out the wishes of the late Gussie Norlander's family leads her to secret deals and assignations that give "Pilgrims" a pleasant sense of light European and marital intrigue akin to Diane Johnson novels like "Le Divorce."
While the central conflict of the novel -- will Margie destroy her staid Wobegon life in favor of a romantic, dangerous life in Italy, and does she have the monetary means to do so -- provides a few hours of diverting amusement, longtime followers of the Keillor oeuvre should be fascinated by the "Gary Keillor" character. He joins the trip after magnanimously promising to fund it, but the rest of the pilgrims avoid him and he is left alone to contemplate his pathetic, "sophisticated" life.
People stop talking when "Gary Keillor" is near, and they speak of his work and his life with more contempt than usually seems present in Keillor's self-effacing self-references. "Gary Keillor" isn't just a misunderstood misfit; he's a loser. Margie describes him thusly: "Four million people, tuning in to hear Mr. Keillor's quiet monotone murmuring on about the weather and gardening and how he once threw a tomato at his sister. Unbelievable." And Irene Bunson demands to see his journal, saying, "You're writing it all down so you can put it in a book and make us look like idiots on parade. Am I right? Well, tell me, what gives you the right to do that?"
After all the Wobegon material he's produced, even the notoriously prickly Keillor must surely have grown inured to critics' charges that he's overmilked this strong, above-average cow. But the way the residents of the made-up place that's become synonymous with Keillor not only disdain his hovering in "Pilgrims," but actively despise it, suggests he is starting to hear the cease-and-desist calls not only from without, but within as well.
Cherie Parker is a native of central Minnesota currently living in Washington, D.C.