Pilgrims, By Garrison Keillor

An amusing journey of self-discovery
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The Independent Culture

A focus on late-life rejuvenation is becoming something of a trend in Garrison Keillor's deadpan comedies of Lake Wobegon, his fictional Minnesotan enclave of spectacularly dour Norwegian farmers and stoical Lutherans. Liberty showcased the antics of Clint Bunsen, one-time organiser of the Fourth of July parade, who tried to sustain an affair with a stunning clairvoyante less than half his age. Before that, Pontoon had spry granny Evelyn kicking her husband out and embarking upon an affair with an old flame. "It behooves the spirited to keep dancing," Evelyn declared - wisdom that Margie Krebsbach, Keillor's latest affectionate heroine, discovers only after 35 years of domestic duty, three kids and her husband's mute decision to start sleeping in the guest room.

Margie accidentally acquires a small fortune for agreeing to place a photo on the untended grave of Gussy Norlander, a Wobegoner who reportedly died heroically in the liberation of Rome. Her invitation for others to join her on a patriotic trip to the Eternal City is boosted by another Old Wobegonian, writer and broadcaster "Gary Keillor", who pledges $57,000 to cover expenses.

Quite why the author chooses to leap into this plot is unclear. His gift generates little more than some frank opinions as to the downward trajectory of A Prairie Home Companion, the radio show Keillor has been hosting since 1974. The pilgrims' snitty resentment of their benefactor does give a slight edge to an otherwise flabby plot, which progresses shakily from the pilgrims' reluctance to experience anything Italian to recollections of slapstick misdemeanours amid the Holsteins.

Only Margie's buoyant presence picks the novel up. Keillor nourishes a dangerously un-Wobegonian carpe diem sentiment in her own thoroughly charming, mildly illicit Roman encounters. This novel is a gentle entertainment, with the pilgrims' choric grousing giving counterpoint to Margie's widening horizons. But its flatter aspects are Keillor's stock in trade of phlegmatic Norwegian guilt, which suggests a possible dwindling of the franchise.