BOOK REVIEW / And even a populist prat must have his pratfall: The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor: Faber, pounds 14.99

HE WAS some guy, young Gary Keillor. At 16 he stood six foot two, ate three lunches and three dinners a day, read four books a week, and walked the 12 miles home from school singing pop songs or saying 'brilliant and outrageous things' to himself. He was, says the author (who should know), 'a remarkable person'.

He was also a bit of a prat, whose pious recitation of a Whitman poem made fellow pupils smirk and gag. His teacher, Miss Rasmussen, thought he should recite Whitman again in the school talent show, and Gary ('Gal' to his friends?) jumped at the chance, because of an unreciprocated pash for the show's producer, Dede. The real star was supposed to be Dede's boyfriend, Bill, with his rendition of 'All Shook Up', but clever Gary's mock-version of Whitman managed to satirise Bill's performance and steal the limelight. 'Hey,' everyone said afterwards, 'you were great, you should've done more, that was funny.'

Garrison Keillor has gone on being funny ever since, on stage, behind a microphone, between hard covers. The sentimental view of him is as a Whitmanesque democrat, wry, genial and unpatronising. But as the story of 'Gary Keillor' reminds us, he can also be aloof, swotty and even rather malicious, putting a distance between himself and his subjects, even when the subject is Gary Keillor. To act the prig and populist simultaneously is a trick very few humorists can pull off. But every prat must have his pratfall, and 20 years after his debut as a radio host Garrison Keillor has begun to slip.

If The Book of Guys, an early contender for the worst book-title of the year, suggests a vision of buddies, Budweiser and Robert Bly, the preface does little to dispel it. It describes Keillor, now middle-aged, going off into the backwoods to stand around a campfire with 30 men, eating chilli out of cans, drinking whisky and singing mournful songs of misogyny. 'Not my crowd,' he says, having in the past made fun of beefy and beefing men like these, and having always preferred the company of women because 'men need women to talk to and tell the truth to'.

On the other hand - and here Keillor pulls himself up to his full six foot two - don't these guys have a point? Once manhood was 'an opportunity for achievement'. Once women died for the love of men. But the male sex peaked in the 18th century. These days guys are gloomy. These days the ability to throw a baseball at 90 miles an hour goes for nothing. These days women grade men for good behaviour and deny them their polygamous instincts ('We are lovers and artists, meant to be noble, free-ranging and foolish, like dogs, not competing for a stamp of approval'). The answer, says Keillor, is for men to let women rule the world, but stop guiltily 'trying to be so wonderful to them'. We guys need to look after ourselves. It's time women realised that we 'are delicate as roses in winter and need to be wrapped in warmth or else we die'.

It takes guts to wind up the enemy like this, especially when you're still sleeping with it. The book's title, it's clear, intends to carry two other provocative meanings - as a guy (rope lead, support) for troubled men, and in order to guy feminists (vt, 'to make an object of ridicule or derisive wit'). But humour loses its point when it is needled, and humorists their sting when they are nettled - which is why the 20 stories that follow are grouchy, defensive and full of special pleading. 'Marooned' gives the flavour. Danny, the narrator, is a regular fellow who works his butt off for 25 years in an ad agency before being fired. Dave is his dumb dropout brother-in-law, who gets rich and famous by writing one of those business-success-cum-personal-growth books. Rusty is a herbalist chef-sailor who thinks Maya Angelou a better author than John Updike. In other words: one decent old-fashioned hetero and two modern charlatans. But Julie, Danny's wife, reads Dave enthusiastically, fancies Rusty and gives Danny a hard time ('in some way my love for you is a symptom of my denial of myself, an attempt to make myself invisible'). This is how bad it's got, the story seems to say, but then makes it up to Danny with a happy ending.

The heroes of these stories are vulnerable, but not all are mortal. Dionysus appears as a wine tycoon suffering a mid-life crisis. Zeus is a philanderer whose wife Hera is having him followed. Don Giovanni is a small-time pianist in murky bars, outlining his philosophy to dumb married Figaro ('Seduction is a mutual endeavor in which I conspire with a woman to give her what she wants to do without reminding her that this goes against her principles'). But even these gods and heroes have the same priapic gripes. Therapists annoy them. So do Zen, food faddists, quilt-making, holism and birthing conferences. So does most anything you'd not have found in Minnesotsa in the 1950s. Only one thing, or two things ('(her) beautiful little brown bazookies'), make these men feel good.

Some of the stories here are simply feeble - a campy cowboy, a political satire involving George Bush, rhyming couplets about a baseball player. But towards the end, especially, others wander in that have no gender scores to settle and float free of all the fiddle. 'Earl Grey' is the best of them, a story which starts like others here from a bright conceit (that Earl Grey tea owes its name not to some snooty English lord but to an all-American boy whose dad is something in Washington), but which doesn't run out of steam. The insights of 'Earl Grey' are nothing to do with the sex war: the subject is any and every middle child, whose fate it is to be neglected, who 'can stand on stage in a gold lame suit with six spotlights trained on him and his beautiful pectorals, and sing his heart out and people in the audience will be looking at the band, the third saxophonist from the right, and thinking 'He reminds me of somebody who, but who? A guy who was at my wedding . . .' '

Observations like this remind you that what used to make Garrison Keillor so funny was that he didn't use axes, only saws. Here wisdom has become prejudice and, for all the energy in the writing, the sound it makes is mean-spirited.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones