Few writers create a fictional universe that becomes as well known and oft-referenced as Lake Wobegon, the central Minnesota town that was created and exists wholly within Garrison Keillor's imagination.
When his rich voice launches into the opening of the "News From Lake Wobegon" during his Saturday night "A Prairie Home Companion" radio broadcasts, the theater audience roars with pleasure, then settles in to enjoy yet another flight to the town apparently frozen in a time when the main ethnic tensions were between Germans and Norwegians.
Although Keillor writes non-Wobegon novels and political columns, champions poetry and has tried his hand at filmmaking, Lake Wobegon will undoubtedly be the creation to which he will always be most tied.
So how to receive another Lake Wobegon novel from Keillor? Will it expand the existing world of the Chatterbox Cafe, Sons of Knute and Norwegian bachelor farmers as we've come to know it? Will it further explore some of the darker themes of regret and disillusionment that the "News From Lake Wobegon" occasionally touches on? Or will it simply be an expanded version of a Saturday night Keillor monologue; more of the beloved characters and nonsense but minus the gilded voice?
"Liberty," which focuses tightly on Clint Bunsen of Bunsen Motors, can easily be classified as the latter. Except for a consistent tone of frank sexuality (which, of course, wouldn't work on a radio show but seems appropriate for the novel), "Liberty" could easily fit between a fake public service announcement by the "Ketchup Advisory Board" and a peppy bluegrass song. "Liberty" doesn't break any new ground for Keillor, but it does trod upon earth justifiably beloved by many fans.
Absurdity and farce figure prominently in Lake Wobegon stories, and Keillor relies strongly on them in "Liberty." The big to-do that has the townsfolk in a dither this time is the annual Lake Wobegon July 4th parade, a civic celebration that has grown to outrageous and ostentatious proportions under the direction of Clint Bunsen, with Percheron horses, military-grade fireworks and an expected visit from CNN. But Clint's tenure is coming to an end after five years. Too many people miss the hokey, pre-Clint stuff like cowpie bingo. The celebrations committee votes him off and he's left with one last lame-duck shindig to pull off.
Concurrent with the dissolution of his parade position, the 60-year-old Bunsen is having something of a late midlife crisis. A DNA test suggests that he is not, after all, a Norwegian. He imagines a stirring of Spanish blood and has an affair with the nubile free spirit who plays Lady Liberty in the parade. He considers running off with the young woman as a denouement to his career as parade czar. Clint's brooding yet no-nonsense wife, Irene, is on to him, and considers extreme measures to keep Clint from throwing away the complacent senior years she has planned for them. Familiar characters pop up, and the usual themes -- broad Lutheran stereotypes, the mixed blessing of spending one's life in the same town, what-the-heck's-the-matter-with-kids-these-days rants -- are employed. It's funny in a titter-and-guffaw kind of way, and wholly entertaining as a light read.
If "Liberty" were a free-standing novel, it would feel slight in its scope and scattered in its characterizations. If there weren't decades of scene-setting and myth-building behind it, Clint Bunsen's ham-handed attempts to grab glory from the mundane and escape mortality through an unlikely affair would make Keillor seem like the poor man's Philip Roth. But "Liberty" is anything but free-standing. Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories are so prolific and constantly updated that they function as a living art.
So, is "Liberty" a new and exciting direction from Garrison Keillor? Not by a long shot. But it's been a good week in Lake Wobegon.
Cherie Parker is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and Minnesota native. She blogs at thelitlife.com.