Book World: Steve Amick on Garrison Keillor's 'Pilgrims,' the Wobegons in Rome

By Steve Amick
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Garrison Keillor's laugh-filled umpteenth novel (it's hard to calculate precisely when he puts them out by the bushel load), the Wobegonians travel abroad for the first time. And they negotiate the streets of Rome and their feelings the same way they do back home -- by telling stories about other Wobegonians.

The official purpose of their pilgrimage is to place a photo on a local war hero's grave. The unofficial purpose, for instigator Margie Krebsbach, is to seek out her own Roman Holiday, Audrey-style. She hopes the locale will jump-start her husband's lagging libido, and if it doesn't, quel che sarĂ . . . . Italian is a Romance language, and here's a whole boot-shaped land of men who speak it fluently. What she doesn't count on is a dozen townspeople and even Garrison Keillor himself tagging along. Taking the authorial intrusion further than even Vonnegut in his Avis rental car, he picks up the tab for the whole ungrateful tour group.

If we didn't get it with the allegory of a small town, maybe we get it here: Life is like a free trip to Rome -- surprising, exciting, wonderfully mismanaged, but we don't get to pick our seatmates.

Those who marginalize Keillor as merely the host of an old-style radio show mistake the messenger for the message. They misinterpret his lulling tones and assume he serves up softhearted soporifics about a gentle world in which all drama is outhouse- or icehouse-centric and life's worst disasters can be solved with a plunger or rhubarb pie. Not true: Keillor's characters have always been complex and real, they have always spun out, and they have always shown that they can be horribly lost and reeling or capable of deep-cutting cruelty.

In "Pilgrims," we learn that Pastor Ingqvist once told someone off with that classic Anglo-Saxon verb. And we witness extramarital shenanigans of a hasty and seamy nature -- more tawdry than Audrey. Though this may shock a few, it shouldn't. Keillor has never brought us rosy-cheeked cardboard figures posed for a morality play. Once the chuckles subside, he leaves us with an engaging, moving look at the true, daily heroics: people struggling to go ahead and love those they've thrown in with, or -- short of that -- at least overcome the urge to give them a good choking.

Amick is the author of the novels "Nothing but a Smile" and "The Lake, the River & the Other Lake."

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