You really can hear the hushed resonant voice of the genial host of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion reciting this latest episodic chronicle of growing up in rural Minnesota.
Keillor’s first novel in four years (following Wobegon Boy, 1997) is narrated by (obvious authorial surrogate) 14-year-old Gary, the timid yet intellectually adventurous son of a placid family who belong to the evangelical Christian Sanctified Brethren. Sanctified or not, Gary fantasizes energetically and guiltily about sex (hiding his borrowed copy of High School Orgies from the disapproving scrutiny of his deeply conservative Daddy—a worrywart of Herculean proportions—and annoyingly pious Oldest Sister). The narrative rambles about amiably, as Gary bonds affectionately with his doting, dotty maiden Aunt Eva (who may remind readers of Truman Capote’s immortal Cousin Sook), trespasses the bounds of decency with his hellion cousin Kate, works as a temporary sportswriter covering the woeful Lake Wobegon Whippets baseball team (who approach mediocrity, thanks to star pitcher Roger Guppy, Kate’s secret beau), and tentatively exercises his writing muscles further by concocting hilariously inchoate short stories (don’t miss the one about the deflowering of Eleanor of Aquitaine*). It’s a delightful comic romp, featuring characters who deserve to become legends—like Lake Wobegon’s own Bonnie and Clyde, criminal fugitives Ricky Guppy (Roger’s brother) and his girlfriend Dede, who versify their exploits for the newspapers (“To live in peace is our desire. / We love each other. Hold your fire”) and Whippets’ coach Ding Schoenecker (his policy on drinking in the dugout: “If you can’t remember how many strikes on you, you’ve had too much”). Gary dutifully records them all, while burning with numerous unslakeable lusts.
Think Huckleberry Finn in hormonal overdrive, or Penrod with a perpetual erection. They won’t be assigning this one in elementary schools, but adults of all ages should find Keillor’s refreshingly impudent Americana just about irresistible.