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Midlife discontent in Garrison Keillor's new novel, Liberty

Escape from Wobegon?

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Liberty
by Garrison Keillor
Viking, 267 pp.

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Near the end of Liberty, Clint Bunsen, an aging auto mechanic and chairman of Lake Wobegon's annual Fourth of July Parade, continues his booklong fantasy of escaping to California with a free-spirited, sexually open young woman he has met named Angelica Pflame:

[T]hey'd find a little seaside town and he'd find a garage. A good mechanic will always find work. Folks in the bullshit professions have to struggle—write up their bullshit résumés, make friends with bigger bullshitters, learn what kind of shit is valued and how to produce it, maybe buy a bull ....

Given that storytellers may be the world's most respected and beloved bullshitters, is Garrison Keillor, who has been chronicling Lake Wobegon since 1974, talking about himself a little here?

Indeed, although Keillor has never been a character in Lake Wobegon (part of the charm of A Prairie Home Companion has always been Keillor's wry distance, a Stage Manager in the Our Town tradition), it's tempting to read Liberty autobiographically. Like Clint, Keillor is hardworking, not entirely healthy (Keillor had open-heart surgery in 2001), and stuck in a franchise and in Lake Wobegon. Both men have had their marital issues: Clint is bored with his wife of forty years, Irene; Keillor has been married three times. And both men are fond of taking dreamy lyrical flights of purplish prose and verse.

Clint discovers that he isn't primarily of old Norse stock as he thought, but half Spanish. Freed from his pallid Lutheran heritage, he begins to compose love rhymes in his head, open the valves of his libido and chase Angelica. He smokes wherever he fees like it. He orders a gaudy Iberian costume to wear for the Fourth of July parade; and as the longtime chairman of that dazzling parade—people come from all over and CNN always sends a camera crew to the extravaganza, which has made Clint so popular he's considering running for Congress—he revels in loosing his newfound Mediterranean temper on anyone who gets in his way.

Fans of Lake Wobegon will find familiar characters sprinkled throughout Liberty and plenty of scenes set in the Chatterbox Café; and they will delight in the middle-Americana Keillor continues to purvey, although Wobegon seems to be getting a little less upright and much seamier: There are more drunks and liars and cheaters now, women's bosoms are everywhere (especially through Clint's concupiscent view—he's become a dirty old man), and almost everybody seems to be on some prescription med or other that makes mischief with their moods. The whole town is now half-cocked. "In a small town," Keillor notes, "there is no normal."

Independence Day gives Keillor the chance to run off litanies of kitsch: the Fabulous Frisbee Dogs of Fergus Falls and the Betsy Ross Blanket Toss and the Tammy Jo Dance Studio Happiness Troupe and "Bonnie Schellenbach, Miss Pork." These details can get a little exhausting, and the book doesn't need all of them. But Keillor is indefatigable (he even makes sure to cut a slice of rhubarb pie here and there), and Liberty barrels chest-first through its 24 fervid, cacophonous hours of parade frenzy. Although Keillor indulges in frequent curlicued digressions, and his plotting lurches like the parade in question—a major reveal seems to come far too early in the book—Keillor's wry phrasemaking and his storyteller's adroitness smooth over the bumps. (And you can't help hearing his sonorous baritone delivering the words.) His episodes are short and his comedy is easy.

Yet Liberty deliberately unsettles the longstanding comfort A Prairie Home Companion has piped into American homes via radio for decades. Even as a Spaniard, Clint gives the novel the bitter, cynical demeanor of a man in midlife crisis. He desperately wants out of Lake Wobegon (does his creator, too?), and the question that drives the book is whether he will manufacture the gumption to leave Irene and escape to the Golden State with the fetching Angelica—who will march symbolically in Clint's great parade as, of course, Miss Liberty herself.

You may already have hazarded an answer to that question. In life and in love, the pull of the tried-and-true is almost impossible to resist, even when something better stands before you naked, resplendent and beckoning. What gives life its daily certainty if not its predictable frustrations, its dulling work and its shackling marriages? It's easier to settle into chronic, grinding discontent than it is to run to passion and mystery and the danger they may entail. We choose the lower road, and seldom exercise the Liberty we hold so dear. Even Garrison Keillor, a venerable national treasure now in his seventh decade and free to do whatever he pleases, keeps coming back to Lake Wobegon.

Garrison Keillor appears at the McKimmon Center on the N.C. State campus at 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28. Quail Ridge Books co-sponsors: Visit quailridgebooks.booksense.com for more information.

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