Fishing for Meaning in Lake Wobegon Waters : Garrison Keillor Reflects on the Success of His Semi-Autobiographical Best Seller

September 18, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Garrison Keillor, the resident wit of Lake Wobegon, Minn., the town whose people truly live by its motto, Sumus Quod Sumus ("We Are What We Are"), acknowledged just a twinge of discomfort with the rocket ride of "Lake Wobegon Days" to the pinnacle of best-sellerdom, and with his new celebrity and the creature comforts that accompany it.

Crossing one red-socked leg over the other, Keillor expounded a bit on the Minnesotan philosophy, as explained in his book: "Left to our own devices, we Wobegonians go straight for the small potatoes. Majestic doesn't appeal to us; we like the Grand Canyon better with Clarence and Arlene parked in front of it, smiling. We feel uneasy at momentous events."

If They Only Knew

Now, given that the folks in Wobegon "have a proprietary interest in me," Keillor said, "well, if they knew I was sitting here talking in this pretentious, high-blown way about Minnesota, if they knew I flew from San Francisco down here first class, if they knew I stayed in a room like the one I stayed in at the Stanford Court Hotel, they'd wonder about that . . . ."

Sure, that bothers him "a little bit," Keillor said. "But not as much as you might think. And not as much as they might hope."

Keillor created Lake Wobegon (alt. 1,418, pop. 942) 11 years ago as the locale for his new public radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion."

It is a town that, as any dedicated Companionite can tell you, has one traffic light, almost always green; two parking meters, mostly "for show," and little white frame houses with clotheslines and plaster animals and cast-iron deer.

'Outstanding Bellies'

In Lake Wobegon, "most men wear their belts low, there being so many outstanding bellies," the old-timers drive their cars "at about trolling speed" and "you could stand in the middle of Main Street and not be in anyone's way--not forever, but for as long as a person would want to stand in the middle of the street."

Now, Keillor knows this is funny stuff, and a listening audience estimated at 2 million, most of whom have never been closer to Minnesota than seeing Walter Mondale on television, agree. If he's tickled a universal funny bone, that's for some outsider to explain, Keillor insisted--"I've lived in Minnesota all my life."

"A Prairie Home Companion," an American Public Radio broadcast live from the Orpheum Theater in St. Paul each Saturday night is, by Keillor's description, "a strange show that I don't understand."

Those tuned in this past Saturday evening were treated to a replay of a March program that featured a little Cajun music, a gospel-style duet by Keillor and Emmylou Harris and a classic 20-minute monologue that began, as Keillor monologues always begin, with "It has been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my hometown . . . ."

This week's monologue, which opened with a report of Clarence Bunsen not having a heart attack, but going to church anyhow because he was afraid he'd had a heart attack, somehow wound up as a dissertation on Norwegian thrift and stoicism and an explanation of why a 60-year-old like Clarence, who's strictly a sensible socks fellow, should wear boxer shorts and not "funny little purple briefs."

It then digressed into noting the efforts made by some in his flock to get Pastor Ingqvist of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church to liven up a bit, be more like "Reverend Super" of the "Turquoise Temple" in Anaheim, to spread the word of the Lord with a little more "rising inflection" and "falling deflection" and a feel for "the long pause," w-h-e-t-h-e-r i-t m-a-k-e-s a l-o-t o-f s-e-n-s-e o-r n-o-t.

And it was noted that the efforts had been a bit too successful, that the good pastor had perfected the technique so well that "you keep thinking that he's stopped."

Well, you get the idea.

And that was about all the news this week from Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average."

It was brought to us by Minnesota Language Systems, a cassette teaching system so effective that "in a week or two people will think you've lived in Minnesota all your life," by Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery ("If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it") and by The Fearmonger Shop (est. 1954) "in the Dales . . . Clydesdale, Chippendale, Mondale . . . and all the other fine shopping centers."

"They're trying to kill me off, but I'm thriving," Keillor said, settling in for yet another session on the demanding book promotion circuit. "Stopping smoking made a big difference." (He kicked the habit six months ago.)

He was talking about his boyhood in Anoka, Minn., a place not far as the crow flies from Lake Wobegon but "a good distance in every (other) way. A good part of Anoka was always looking toward Minneapolis, about 20 miles to the south. Minneapolis was sort of an arbiter of taste."

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