Garrison Keillor's new novel, "Boom Town," is an odd book, an example of autobiographical fiction, or perhaps merely of hubris.
It opens with the narrator — a 79-year-old former radio host named Garrison Keillor who left his job under a cloud — returning to Lake Wobegon for the funeral of his old friend Norm Gunderson. The town has changed; it's booming with an influx of young entrepreneurs, vegans, yoga practitioners and folks who drink wine at $21 a glass.
Bunsen Motors and Krebsbach Chev are gone. The Chatterbox Cafe has changed its menu to include healthier items: more vegetable pad thai, fewer roast beef sandwiches. Lots of the old folk are dead or have moved to Florida.
The narrator says he's just an observer of the changes, "a mere stenographer," but it's clear where his sentiments lie. "The town feels lively and prosperous and so what if the old culture is dying off," he says, a bit wistfully and perhaps bitterly.
Norm has bequeathed to him the old Gunderson family lake cabin, a place where the narrator spent a magical summer between high school and college. He recalls in sensuous detail the long days reading Thoreau and learning about sex with Norm's sister, Marlys, who — it is apparently important to note — made the first move and spent most of the summer wearing nothing more than a green bikini. (Note: This review was written off an advance copy of the novel. In the final version of the book, Marlys' name was changed to Arlene.)
At summer's end, he drove off in his 1956 Chevy to attend the University of Minnesota. "I was eighteen, had tasted gin and made love to a girl. ... I was a man," he says, and you do not get the sense he is being ironic.
Poor Marlys, though, ended up in a mental institution and is now in a care center in Eau Claire, Wis.
This is just one of the weirdly hostile details in this novel, which veers between reality, fantasy (the narrator's wife, Giselle, flies from New York to Minneapolis for one night because she so misses having sex with him) and revenge (the hipsters might have taken over Lake Wobegon, but in the end they get their comeuppance).
Throughout the novel, the narrator ponders his fall from grace — he lost his radio show because he recited a raunchy limerick on the air. (You would be forgiven if you mixed up the author and the narrator, but the story of the actual Keillor's downfall is more complicated.)
"It's a lesson in the transitory nature of fame," he says at one point. "One year you're the ace of spades and then you're a pair of twos." And, at another point, "I was a divisive figure in town. People over sixty liked me, people under forty did not."
Still, there's humor here, too. At 79, Keillor remains a smooth writer, and his ability to create realistic but quirky characters and then spin endless, oddball stories about them is as strong as ever. While the book is largely plotless, the voice is unmistakable and the soliloquies are often funny, if you don't mind the occasional joke about flatulence.
Is it worth reading? I think the narrator said it best. If you're over 60, "Boom Town" might bring back fond memories of sitting in the grass of the sculpture garden at the old Science Museum in St. Paul, watching a live performance of "A Prairie Home Companion." I remember those days quite fondly myself.
But if you're under 40, well, it might just leave you cold.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. @StribBooks
By: Garrison Keillor.
Publisher: Prairie Home Productions, 228 pages, $26.99.