Freedom of Self-Determination
Friday, September 26, 2008
By Garrison Keillor
Viking. 267 pp. $25.95
It's a few weeks before Lake Wobegon's Fourth of July parade, and, as usual, 60-year-old Clint Bunsen, who's been chairman of the event for six years now, is running into trouble with the same old group of naysayers. Clint loves the parade; he has since he was 10. It may be that his passion for this pageant has turned into obsession; he may even have been getting too high-handed with his fellow committee members. But Clint has a vision of glitter and joy and grandeur and adventure that he's driven to manifest through this annual event.
If he wants any joy and grandeur, that's the only way he's going to get it. As Clint sees his life, after a short stint in the Navy and an idyllic stretch of months in San Diego, he drove back home to Minnesota to tell his girlfriend, Irene, that he didn't want to marry her; he wanted to go to art school in California. Instead, Irene "trapped" him in the oldest, most traditional way, and Clint has spent the past 36 years married to a woman he thinks he's attached to only by biology and courtesy. He spends his days working as a mechanic at the family car dealership and has three children: two of them lackluster and unlovable; the third, his darling, Kira, he has managed to push out of Lake Wobegon. She lives in California, enjoying the life he always longed for. His wife puts up with him, merely. So it comes as no surprise that he sees the Fourth of July parade as his masterwork, his yearning bid for immortality.
Last year, he succeeded so well that he produced a parade that featured "not one but two national champion drum-and-bugle corps snap-bang-rattle-boombooming down Main Street, one of them in leather kilts, the Fabulous Frisbee Dogs of Fergus Falls, a unicycle basketball team whipping a ball around as they wheeled through fancy formations, a line of girls in illuminated glow-worm outfits, a dazzling float made of silver candy wrappers with a clown who juggled tabby cats, a fire-eater who blew flames fourteen feet long, local men and women dressed up as George and Martha, Abe Lincoln, Tom Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony . . . and four antique circus bandwagons . . . pulled by Percherons, sixteen-horse hitches that took your breath away."
Clint also accomplished a media miracle: He managed to get CNN to come to town, and footage of the parade went out all over the world. (Of course, the network neglected to mention the name of the town, but still . . .) Clint is justly proud of all that he has done, but now, this June, before the Fourth of July, two mean old biddies on the committee manage to oust him from his position as chair.
Clint is devastated, hurt beyond belief, but when one door closes, another opens, as New Agers say. Two things unexpectedly happen: He strikes up an acquaintanceship with the 30-ish hippie chick who played Miss Liberty in last year's parade, and he gets the result from a DNA test that says that -- far from being a reticent Norwegian -- he's more than half Hispanic. Clint and Miss Liberty manage a glorious one-day stand at a nearby motel (which everyone in town finds out about almost before he can get his pants back on). And the DNA test messes with his mind. If he's Hispanic, then he doesn't have to hang around this crummy town anymore, married to a woman he doesn't love; he can escape to California with Miss Liberty and strum songs of his own devising on the guitar.
A legitimate question arises here: Why has the publisher released this goofy little novel in September, rather than June, in time for the Fourth of July? Because, perhaps, this is actually a story about the coarseness, vulgarity and naivete of the U.S. presidential elections. Keillor's genius lies in the fact that after you finish reading this, you don't despair. He makes a strong case for the innate decency of the ocarina players, pig-manure vendors and even an odious governor and would-be member of Congress as they sweatily pursue their political ambitions. This is parody, of course, but -- not for the first time -- the bizarre reality of our actual politics outshines any parody that can be imagined. The trick, the Zen exercise, the Tao of the thing, is to look upon this every-four-year spasm with the same affection we would accord to the Uncle Sam on stilts in Clint Bunsen's beloved parade.
Sunday in Book World
· Terry Pratchett founds a "Nation."
· Paul Theroux makes a return trip.
· Maya Angelou sends a letter.
· Allegra Goodman writes a kids' classic.
· Brzezinski talks to Scowcroft.