Book review: Got a new plot, John?

WOBEGON BOY by Garrison Keillor Faber pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
IT IS never a good sign when a novelist names his main character John. It usually means that the author thinks his own protagonist is boring. When the writer himself goes by the extraordinary name of Garrison, this feels like a worse sign than ever. And sure enough, John Tollefson, narrator of Keillor's Wobegon Boy, is boring. However, no-one could get very far into this novel feeling that they been misled into reading about a character who slowly fails to live up to early promise, since John Tollefson is boring from the outset. He even has the grace to tell us that he and his fellow Norwegian-American Minnesotans are usually seen as "Slow talkers. Mouth breathers" and "dull as milk".

When, half-way through the novel, John has a personality crisis and decides that he is a "cold, smug, wisecracking, oblivious jerk", only a reader born and bred in Minnesota would be likely to disagree.

However, to criticise Keillor for writing about boring people is rather like criticising Dick Francis for writing about horses. It's what he does. Blandness is his milieu. Unfortunately for him, though, the flaws in this novel run far deeper than the characterisation.

Keillor's goal in this book seems to be to try and break out from the rambling, yarn-spinning style for which he is justly famous, and to tell a story with a genuine plot.

Our "hero", John, leaves Lake Wobegon at the start of the book, having first narrated his entire family history right back to his great-grandfather called, thrillingly enough, John Tollefson. He takes a job at WSJO radio station in Red Cliff, New York. Soon he is tired of this job, and decides to try and set up a restaurant with a group of friends. John then deals with his increasing hatred of his job, while in the background the restaurant somehow fails to come to fruition, and a slow-burning romance burns slowly.

The trouble is, whenever a yarn springs to mind, Keillor just can't resist spinning it, and as a result his plot founders under a constant tide of quirky tales. When John has a marriage proposal turned down, he is devastated and worries that if they don't marry, he will "never recover". Within one page, however, he is somehow reminiscing about his high school football chant, which incidentally goes "WOBEGON / We said it once we'll say it again / WOBEGON /Wobegon, Wobegon, that's our town". This failure to exercise a measure of narrative control, and to rein in the anecdotes at moments where the characters need to be taken seriously, marks Keillor out as a fatally limited writer.

He is a genuinely brilliant anecdotalist, and has a knack of telling entire stories within the space of three lines: "Squirrels filled their gutters with acorns, and water leaked through the shingles and ran down the walls and spread a rare fungus through the entire house. [His] wife swelled up to twice her size and had to be put under a plastic tent in the hospital and the family could only visit with her by way of video camera."

The one-paragraph story, though, seems to be his natural length. Set against his wooden attempts to write a love scene between the novel's two main characters, the verve and confidence of the anecdotes simply reinforce the failure of the novel. "I knelt on the floor and pulled her shorts and her underpants down to her ankles and she stepped out of them", hardly qualifies as erotic prose.

However, just when the novel looks like it is grinding to its knees, Keillor kills off John's father, and the narrative suddenly finds its pace. In an extended funeral scene, and in dealing with the aftermath of the father's death, the novel at last becomes involving, and ultimately moving. With the whole family back together in Lake Wobegon, grieving, arguing, telling each other stories, and hiding from a furious winter, the book comes alive.

Having amply demonstrated what he can't do, in the final hundred pages Keillor reminds us what he does best. For fans of his writing, this section alone makes the book worth reading. For everyone else - and I believe there are people who don't enjoy hokey wisdom laced with mildly amusing Norwegian-American whimsy - this is certainly one to avoid.