Books: Isn't it good, Norwegian food?

Fancy cuisine in New York? Susan Jeffreys would prefer some more fiskeboller med hvit saus
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Wobegon Boy

by Garrison Keillor

Faber & Faber, pounds 16.99

My friend in Bergen tells me how the arrival of a Norwegian American in her office has helped liven up the dark winter lunch-hours no end. Grim Nordic customs and recipes, long abandoned in the true north, are still doggedly adhered to in Minnesota. Keillor fantasises about this in his fictional bulletin on Lake Wobegon's favourite son, John Tollefson. He imagines that the King and Queen of Norway - having endured another pilgrimage to the Lutheran schools and churches of Minnesota, and sunk the killer Norwegian pastry and the pickled herring - return to Oslo, open a white Bordeaux, fix themselves a green salad and ponder their exiled kin. "Who in hell were those people? They couldn't have been Norwegians! They seemed so backward."

This counts as Keillor's first novel, although it's not really one. Rather, it delivers further thoughts on love, life and death from the point of view of someone who has had a good Lutheran upbringing. "Cheer up, make yourself useful, mind your manners and, above all, don't feel sorry for yourself." In middle-age, John Tollefson has gone against all these principles and come a bit of a cropper. His work is a sinecure, running a small radio station that broadcasts classical music. His manners have so deteriorated that he tells jokes about douche bags in company that doesn't appreciate such raillery, and he wallows in self-pity. From his own laziness, he nearly goes bust and seems about to lose the love of his life from courting too slow.

Actually, you're pretty fed up with him by the end, and start to wonder if all the fancy foreign food he prepares is sapping his moral fibre. There does seem to be far too much of the making of marinades and the eating of salads off coloured bowls. It's turned him soft. A bit more of the fiskeboller med hvit saus og poteter washed down with a glass of milk would put the backbone back into him.

After the rich eccentricity of Keillor's The Book of Guys - with its tales of lonesome cowboys searching for a vibrant lifestyle; of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Susanna and their life in Fargo; of an obsessive weight- lifter on the edge of homicide - this return to old themes seems strange. There's a sense he is losing touch with the material and just reworks the stuff in glummer mood. Even that piece of comic mastery the Living Flag - in which overexcited Norwegians in colour-coded hats keep breaking ranks - appears again.

Tollefson's father requires John to return to Wobegon to tidy up, to bury and to mourn. Nothing much happens. Snow is cleared, fruit pies are dropped and we get some good old Norwegian cooking. There are retellings of family history and the sort of remarks that everyone says on such occasions.

Perhaps a fear of the novel's great open spaces has made Keillor cling to the ice-floes of his earlier material. When you've been turning out his finely crafted short pieces, then agoraphobia seems reasonable. In fact, the pace and rhythm seem just right, and there's a hopeful vitality in the last chapter. But Keillor should either ditch Tollefson or - as he's in New York - get him into therapy.

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