I discovered Garrison Keillor long before I knew he was “Garrison Keillor” — that is, the host of the National Public Radio’s all-too-long-running (30 years) radio variety show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” In the 1970s, I used to subscribe to the New Yorker. That’s the old New Yorker, readers, a beacon of quality literature and of the literarily hip, and a model for aspiring writers of quality fiction, as I was then. I used to read it cover to cover.
By then, of course, I knew that John Updike had served an apprenticeship there, writing the “Talk of the Town” front-of-the-book feature for some period. I was a full-fledged quality magazine geek. I had sent a short story to Updike, on which he kindly penned some comments and criticism, and sent it back. (We accidentally spent a shuttle flight together flying back from New York in 1995, and I reminded him of that, and thanked him.) I used to correspond with Rust Hills, then the fiction editor of Esquire.
I remember one New Yorker short story very well for the cleverness of its irony and its plot. In it, a little boy in the Midwest gets caught up in a completely fake drama mounted by the players in a radio variety show, and the boy buys box after box of a certain breakfast cereal to “vote” for who he wants to win the fair maiden in the conflict between husband and other man in the radio show. The breakfast food, of course, is the sponsor of the radio show.
I’ve just spent half an hour searching through Google, and I cannot find the title of that short story, decades after I read it in a Keillor collection. Confine Keillor to his short stories alone, as I discovered in that search, and he would still be a literary figure of some stature on the American scene. He has published not only in the New Yorker, but in the Atlantic, has edited at least one collection of the year’s best short stories (1998), and is the subject of a number of critical studies of the American short story. I’ve read most of those stories, and they’re wonderful. Keillor deserves to be read right alongside Andre Dubus, Richard Ford, and Updike. And he brings to the short story something virtually no other author does: He’s funny.
YEARS LATER, I DISCOVERED KEILLOR AGAIN, the way most of us have, I suppose: by tuning across the radio dial and finding that VOICE. “Who,” I wondered, “is that?” As I listened, I got no clue, because what I heard was unlike anything I had ever heard on the radio (nostalgia to the contrary), certainly unlike anything NPR had ever broadcast before.
I was raised in Minnesota and South Dakota. I became a fan, as who from my background could not. Keillor’s put-on accent only faintly resembled the Minnesota speech I knew, but of course I also knew Keillor was spoofing, with his self-conscious bumbling, cracked pronunciations, and deliberately unhip joshing.
My admiration grew boundlessly as I discovered who he was, and appreciated what he had done. He had found a voice and built an entire show around that voice, becoming a kind of all-American cross between Balzac and Will Rogers. He continued to write wonderful, funny, incisive books. And he wrote his radio show every week, hiding behind noms de plume like “Norman Conquest,” a staggering prose output.
IN THE PROCESS, KEILLOR ATTAINED TO A STATUS every writer envies: He had a perfect reputation. He could call up any editor in the country and offer an essay or an article confident that it would be accepted. Those of us who write for a living aim for that status, work all our lives for it, to be regarded as well as Updike or Phillip Roth or Tom Wolfe. Never to have to worry about being rejected again. Never to have to struggle to publish. Lord! It is worth gold, that kind of reputation.
Lately, Garrison Keillor has been shoveling that reputation away with both hands. Why? Because he’s gotten the idea he has some political wisdom to offer. In reality, he has been poisoned by the bile of contemporary politics, a poison that, I believe, got its start when Bill Clinton told James Carville, “We’ll just have to win, then,” and Carville declared, “This is war.”
Keillor has been writing about politics since the ’90s at least. But people really began to take notice that something seemed just plain wrong with an essay Keillor published in Salon in November of 2002, “Empty victory for a hollow man: How Norm Coleman sold his soul for a Senate seat.” Reputedly refused publication by either of the Twin Cities’ hometown newspapers, the essay caused quite a stir, not for any wisdom it offered, but for its sheer meanness. This passage in particular came in for criticism:
Norm got a free ride from the press. St. Paul is a small town and anybody who hangs around the St. Paul Grill knows about Norm’s habits. Everyone knows that his family situation is, shall we say, very interesting, but nobody bothered to ask about it, least of all the religious people in the Republican Party.
Stung by the reactions, Keillor published his reply to critics a week later, getting even more bile off his stomach in “Minnesota’s Shame.” Had he gone over the top with the first essay, in the second, he went even further, saying, among a great many other things, “Thus the use of Iraq as an election ploy, openly, brazenly, from the president and Karl Rove all the way down to Norman Coleman, who came within an inch of accusing [opponent Paul] Wellstone of being an agent of al-Qaida.” That was just plain false, as anyone willing to dig through the newspaper files could find out — and did.
Keillor’s latest, another ad hominem attack on Republicans, appeared in the Baltimore Sun June 8, titled, “With ineptitude on full display, the party’s over for Republicans.” In it, Keillor focuses on one Republican stratagem, of calling attention to Nancy Pelosi as a “San Francisco Democrat.”
“‘San Francisco’ is a code word for ‘g-a-y,’ and after assembling a record of government lies, incompetence and disaster, the party in power hopes that the fear of g-a-y-s will pull it through in November,” Keillor writes. Later, he calls, Republicans “Sturmbannfuhrers.” Granted that the use of Nancy Pelosi is what litterateurs call “antonomasia,” the name stands for a great deal more in San Francisco politics than a gay population: gun control, pet guardianship, crime on the streets, bums sleeping and excreting wherever they wish, City Council resolutions condemning Israel and the war in Iraq, and so much more.
It is telling that the column appeared in a second-rank newspaper. Two or three years ago, he could have had his choice: Washington Post, New York Times, anywhere. Not anymore.
Keillor isn’t the only one to fall victim to the political poison, of course. Laura Ingraham has devoted a book, Shut Up and Sing, to the all-too-many artists who presume to political wisdom. And I’d like to give Keillor the benefit of the doubt. Now, at age 60, with 30 years of writing a two-hour radio show behind him, perhaps he’s just tired. I hope that’s all it is. “A Prairie Home Companion” hasn’t been very funny for quite a long time. Maybe it’s just time to quit.
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.
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