Garrison Keillor

 

The Book of Guys

 

I seem to be enjoying Keillor less with each book of his I read. Perhaps it’s got more to do with me than him – it’s not like I’ve gone through in publication order so it can’t be related to a trend in his writing over time. Is it coincidence that the books I enjoyed most, ‘Wobegon Boy’ and ‘We Are Still Married’ were the first two I read?

 

Keillor can be an inspired improviser, taking a single idea and running to incredible and occasionally surreal lengths with it: ‘Earl Grey’ is inspired riffing on a tea-bag. The danger in his stream of consciousness style – that’s definitely the style here – is that while there is plenty of imagination, you may not be lucky enough to stumble into anything particularly wise, funny or touching. There’s a level of honesty, sure, but that doesn’t always reflect well on Keillor here. What we are restricted to are reflex actions, rather than controlled movement. OK, right, he thinks about sex a fair bit. He wishes he could be like a pagan god, eternally young and constantly moving from seduction to seduction of a train of delectable young babes. Sure. He wants to invest this lust for youth and sexual licence with some profound legitimacy. Uh ... He strives to open his readers up to the insight that responsibility is a tragedy. Sorry Gary, was your point that men should never have to grow up, and women destroy them if they dare try to form a relationship? I mean it’s a day-dream, sure, but hardly a particularly new, insightful or powerful one. But there’s confusion here: young people living such amoral lifestyles are presented quite negatively – he has nothing but derision for new age psychobabble about denying all accountability in finding yourself. Moreover there’s not a hint of awareness that women might have day-dreams that growing up destroys too.

 

I suspect he wasn’t consciously trying to make some grand point, and the day-dreaming thing is at times the charming thing about his musing. He wasn’t trying to be fair minded – that’s part of the point. But make no mistake, the repeated themes here, however heartfelt and artfully expressed, are selfish and childish. And lame: the Ecclesiast came as close as anyone is going to get to this day dream, and realised it wasn’t going to satisfy anyway. I’m sure in his own life he’s found some viable alternatives to teenage cravings: there are plusses, but a fair share of minuses too. None of that maturity is refected here.

 

Sure it’s sad that we get older, and we lose some good things when Mum and Dad aren’t paying for us to play any more, and every pretty girl isn’t a potential fling. But this book seems to be trying to blame someone (generally women) for this. There are alternatives to emasculation and self-pity: an irony is that the masculine types Keillor is lamenting the loss of would never whine like this (cf. Eldredge’s appalling ‘Wild at Heart’). Try Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ for something touching on these issues but with far more wit, craft and insight.

 

June 2007