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)