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WLT: A Radio Romance.

Has New York spoiled Garrison Keillor? Have travel, success, life? Surely not, though his faithful radio audience from A Prairie Home Companion days must wonder, having kept abreast of his movements, and reading that he has recently reopened on upper Broadway (at the Symphony Space). The TV broadcast of his last show from the World Theater in St. Paul, in 1987, barraged the ordinarily listening audience with unwelcome visual truths: Nothing looked the way it was supposed to--or at least not the way we had imagined--the space, the lighting, Jean Redpath's dress, Keillor's face. Instead of the comforting concoction we'd had in our heads--no glare, no wires--we might as well have been shown the dark side of the moon. Was Keillor reading the evening's monologue from a typescript? On the radio he made the stories up right at the mike--we supposed. But that's the thing about radio: You don't know.

To take it a step further, how could anyone hope to keep that fragile, evanescent quality of radio intact in a shift to print? The satire, the hook barely hidden within the wriggling worm, would survive, but what of the homespun stuff of speech, the nuance--would it become as invisible as the airwaves, lie dead on the page, evaporate?

To judge from the evidence of Keillor's Happy to Be Here, Lake Wobegon Days, Leaving Home and We Are Still Married, Lake Wobegon and company have adapted nicely--which is odd, because the town that time forgot but Keillor remembered is evidently not a place with a lot of books: some Emerson, maybe, or John Greenleaf Whittier--personal copies--but you don't hear about a Better Book Boutique or Bob's Pretty Good Library. (It's also, for those who keep track of such things, a community low on blacks, gays, Jews and--surprisingly for those who have spent time in Minnesota--Indians.)

Formally, WLT: A Radio Romance reaches considerably beyond any of Keillor's earlier successes, which all conveyed the bittersweet and, by turn, biting charm of his radio act. It is Keillor's first true novel, and a very good one. A raconteur who excels in shorter forms, he's tried everything from bawdry to bedtime story with great results--and now a sustained entertainment that pursues two threads, two lives--those of a singular young man, Francis With, and a radio station, WLT.

The first chapters plunge into the world of the station, introduce its founders, Roy and Ray, inventor and philanderer, respectively. Only in Chapter Three do we look back to the spring of 1926 and the harebrained beginnings of WLT (which is said to stand for "With Lettuce and Tomato"), founded to promote Roy and Ray Soderbjerg's new but already failing sandwich shop on Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis. Just when you begin to worry that this "novel" will never proceed in coherent and orderly fashion, strong primary colors emerge in the person of Patsy Konopka, a theosophist-positivist-ethereologist (who yodels). In no time she's writing scripts for several of WLT's radio dramas, including Friendly Neighbor, which had been faltering.

The clock ticked, and she wrote, and the big hand crept toward airtime, and the pages came faster and faster. She believed in the power of threes, based on an old theosophist concept of virtue as triangular, and always looked for threes in a story, trios of characters, trilateral story lines, beginning-middle-end, thesis-antithesis-synthesis, quest-defeat-redemption.

Friendly Neighbor becomes almost a character in its own right, serving as backbone to the life of the station, with its Keilloresque nonstory of lovable old Dad Benson, who runs a feed store in Elmville and verbalizes "the things you had always thought yourself." One day the radio audience meets a couple and child who come into the feed store to ask directions to the Moonlight Bay Supper Club. Dad immediately strikes up a friendship with the little girl, who has "never ridden a bicycle or thrown a ball or had her own dog or cat," and agrees to look after Little Becky while the blue-tuxedoed man and his paramour, "a tall buxom bejeweled woman named Ginger," go off for a swell weekend--but they never come back. Keillor's ploy of juxtaposing radio character against real-life player is repeatedly great fun, and Little Becky's performer, Marjery Moore--a Camel-smoking 14-year-old caution who swears "like a cowboy" and gooses her elders--is a winner. Ray tells Patsy to write Becky out, have her father show up again and take her away, but it is too late, the listeners love her. There's even talk of a Little Becky Scrapbook, and the story is all too like, we suspect, Keillor's own--stuck out in St. Paul, writing those monologues week after week, with entire years passing, a victim of his own success, reading each new National Public Radio gift brochure with mixed delight and horror.

One of Little Becky's listener-fans in particular, an 11-year-old small-towner, emerges as the hero-to-be, Francis With, who is the kind of (now probably extinct) kid who learns without fail five new words a day ("arrant, confrere, agape, barbaric, eclipse") and stuffs them into conversations; who is universally hated by his classmates; who goes off alone on a bus to the Big City to have a look at the radio station and then pretty much stays. His appearance signals the beginning of a Bildungsroman thread in WLT--better, a Bildungsroman spoof. Is the Francis With character based to a degree on Garrison Keillor's early life? Probably not much. He is a writer with so fecund and generous an imagination that he will never need to scrape the bottom of that particular pot. It is more the way of Tom Jones or, possibly, Pip in Great Expectations that he explores here, and with a complex humor that buoys us up from any Dickensian darkness. Francis With has the additional virtue of knowing how to avoid the standard pitfall of Bildungsroman heroes: He's reasonably real--unlike, for example, the genre prototype, Wilhelm Meister, the stuffed-shirt cipher in Goethe's double-decker, or Paul Goodman's Horatio Alger in The Empire City, a faceless repository for the author's rich social agenda. Wisely, Francis With heralds his own coming of age with a name change. Now, as Frank White, he is ordinary yet vivid. "I don't know what his talent is," declares another character speaking of Frank, "but he sure is good at it."

The book is about American values: "Somebody paid you money to say what they wanted you to say and you said it. 'Here's ten dollars. Say shit,' so you took the money and said it. You said it ten times, as many as they wanted, and you said it with a grin, or whatever they wanted. A horrible truth in America: money talks." It is also a book that features both the requisite baseball set piece (with a twist) and the requisite American car chase at just that four-fifths point where most novels begin to sag. Never mind that no one's chasing anyone, or that it happens to be an old bus tearing over potholes at ninety miles an hour to beat the blizzard, the passengers either asleep or drunk. Unlike A Prairie Home Companion, this is a darker entertainment, for adults only, with a full measure of funny good poems, formal and otherwise. Mostly (and happily) it is a book about radio.

Radio . . . was a raw primitive gorgeous device that unfortunately had been discovered too late. In the proper order of things, it should have come somewhere between the wheel and the printing press. It belonged to the age of bards and storytellers who squatted by the fire, when all news and knowledge was transmitted by telling. Coming at the wrong time, radio was inhibited by prior developments, such as literature . . .

If only radio had come first, it would have kept poetry and drama and stories in the happy old oral tradition and poets would simply be genial hosts who chant odes and lays instead of a bunch of nervous jerks like T.S. Eliot. . . . Literary principles of form mean nothing--radio has no linear context whatsoever. It is dreamlike, precognitive, primitive, intimate. It has less to do with politics or society than with sex, nature, and religion.

Garrison Keillor's mythical America, unlike the faded and inoffensive Midwest of Sandburg, is dreamed with an unblinking eye. His characters are idiosyncratic. They are culled from who knows where--from our collective past, certainly, but also from the demotic oral tradition of a rich and very real community that is gone and now exists only in recollection, a pretechnological mostly Minnesotan golden age from which one escaped to an unthinkable Chicago--or; God help us, New York--with a sinking heart.

Charles Naylor is the co-author, with Thomas M. Disch, of Neighboring Lives (Johns Hopkins).
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Author:Naylor, Charles
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 23, 1991
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