I set out thinking I wasn’t going to enjoy Garrison Keillor and his tales of Lake Wobegon. American, sentimental, nostalgic, corny, ‘Thurberesque’ – his world, as described by critics, seemed to have all the ingredients likely to deter a hard-bitten and frivolous Englishman. But the Americans have a wonderful way of winning one over and they do it with their sincerity. Keillor may be sweetcorn but there is nothing phoney about him.
In case you don’t know by now, Lake Wobegon is a little town somewhere in the middle of Minnesota which, in turn, is somewhere in the middle of America. It is the kind of town where Mr Keillor imagines the following contersation taking place between two people driving through it on a rainy day:
‘Where is this?’
‘How should I know? You still want to stop for coffee?’
Not here. What is this anyway. I’m sure glad I don’t live here. I don’t know how people could stay in a place like this. What a dump. How far to Minneapolis?’
‘How should I know?’
The point about Lake Wobegon is that nothing ever happens. Each chapter, which is in fact a transcribed radio monologue, begins with the bell-like refrain ‘It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon’. We are then introduced to one or two of inhabitants, most of whom are of Norwegian origin, and told of some rather humdrum incident which has sent a tiny ripple across the otherwise placid surface of their lives. The flavour of the writing is deeply and unashamedly nostalgic. At his most effective Mr Keillor is writing about the memories ordinary people have of things that happened to them when they were young, things which an accident of the present day has recalled. Married couples are reminded of their courting days by the antics of their children, a son is confronted by his father, whom he never met because he ran off with another woman, when a trunkful of papers arrives after his death. Whether there is or ever has been a place like Wobegon, it exists for Mr Keillor in the past as a romantic reconstruction of the world of his parents, a world in which the family was the thing. It is a hymn to marriage by a man who is himself divorced and to old-fashioned religion by a man who no longer believes. But Mr Keillor is sufficiently attuned reality to know that however powerfully he experiences it in his imagination, Lake Wobegon is a dream world. What could easily have become a rich and indigestible dish of sweetcorn is flavoured throughout with humour. Things seldom go right for the Wobegonians. The climate, other people, mosquitoes, God – everything is against them. Despite the corn, Leaving Home is a very funny book with many memorable flashes of pure farce. It should be kept by the bedside and taken in small doses.