‘Stories are the currency of our lives,” Garrison Keillor said years ago in an interview with a writer friend whose piece about him was published in an obscure magazine. She shared it with me when she learned he is one of my few living heroes (another is documentarian Ken Burns).
She lost her life young to cancer, but that quote from him to her to me was a lasting gift. I think of it each time I pause in the grocery checkout line to ask the clerk how she’s doing, and hear a sad tale about her dog or her sinuses, then add a bit of my own day’s news to the clink of nickels and dimes and dollars that pass between us.
As a journalist, I have handled lots of the currency of our lives. Hundreds of people have trusted me with their spare change or even their entire fortunes. What remains remarkable about Keillor, after more than 40 years behind a microphone and keyboard, is that he doesn’t collect stories via interviews. He simply lives: observing, eavesdropping, chitchatting, remembering, daydreaming, then spinning his entire life experience into tales that may be fantastical but are always true.
True to life, that is. Honoring it, in all its wild permutations and possibilities.
Bored these days? Embittered? Crabby? This gem of a book will resuscitate you.
“The Keillor Reader” includes an astonishing variety of genres. Poetry, parody that reads like fact for a while then turns toward the absurd, and a few essays, painfully exquisite. Yes, you might stumble on a couple honkers. (One is about Zeus turning into a Lutheran minister, who turns into a dog.) But it also includes some memorable Lake Wobegon monologues and “Prairie Home Companion” tales; in one, he throws a rotting tomato at the butt of his sister, who dooms him to life in prison.
Attached to each piece in the book are personally revealing notes from Keillor. On delivering his sort of memorized monologues: “Just go fast and keep changing the subject. And if you skid off course, don’t slow down; go in the direction of the skid.” And, “Dear God, what a lovely way to earn a living.”
Who else can write a story that includes baseball, a summer porch, wet dishes, high school orgies and a cousin named Kate? (Who else would try?) And, trust me, his poem “What a Luxury,” about the special joys of male urination, is appropriate to read at a family dinner after everyone is done and juiced. (“Late at night outside the bars / We like to aim up at the stars.”)
My favorites, however, are not those pieces written by the 13-year-old boy trapped within Keillor but by the septuagenarian he has become, and the sexagenarian before that: words about his mother, his wife, his family, his home and the Big Questions that haunt even Big Guys. “At this turning point, a man owes himself an explanation for wanting to go on living,” he writes. “What is left for you to do in this world?”
Ah, man, we know you know and you know we know. What’s left for you to do is gather more stories. They exist in multitudes, as plentiful as the stars in the sky.
Susan Ager is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She is at email@example.com