One of the funnier Lake Wobegon novels might be the saddest as well.
The farcical note on which the book opens gives no indication of the tragic undercurrent to come. In the latest from radio’s A Prairie Home Companion tale-spinner Keillor (Pontoon, 2007, etc.), town mechanic Clint Bunsen has become too dictatorial in his role as chairman of Lake Wobegon’s Fourth of July festivities, or so his hometown critics contend. Though his increasingly ambitious spectacles attracted the attention of CNN the previous year, some question the expense involved in luring attractions such as the Leaping Lutherans Parachute Team and the Fabulous Frisbee Dogs of Fergus Falls. “It is not easy trying to sell grandeur and pizzazz to a bunch of sour old pragmatists,” grumbles Clint, particularly when so many citizens find their own roles in the celebration diminished. The very soul of Lake Wobegon is at stake, though the Minnesota hamlet is no longer a refuge from the outside world. Depression increasingly dissolves into a pharmaceutical haze, and teenage girls now dress like junior trollops. Ousted from his chairmanship, Clint takes stock of his life, discovering in the process that he made a huge mistake coming back to Minnesota from California after his discharge from the Army, and that his marriage to his hometown sweetheart was more from obligation than love, “[a]s if he were in a play written by someone who didn’t like him.” He finds the road not taken through the Internet, where he connects with a clairvoyant (who may also be a stripper) some 35 years younger than he. Their improbable affair throws Clint’s life, his marriage and his hometown into turmoil, culminating in his last holiday as chairman. It would be easier to laugh if the novel didn’t invest Clint with such pathos and his wife with such devotion. On the Fourth of July, will Clint choose liberty or responsibility?
“Living in Lake Wobegon was like being stuck in a bad marriage,” thinks Clint, leaving the rest of the novel to resolve whether the Bunsens’ marriage is worse than most.