Dearly Departed

Sunday, September 30, 2007; Page BW06


By Garrison Keillor

Viking. 248 pp. $25.95

When I was a boy growing up in a small town much like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, every family seemed to have an Evelyn Peterson: an agnostic in a predominantly Lutheran community, who at 82 wears "feathery earrings like trout flies" and chats with strangers on the Internet under the handle "HotShot82." At the beginning of Keillor's hilarious new novel, Evelyn sets in motion a circus of zany events when she dies in her sleep -- despite the fact that she's an inveterate insomniac. In a no-nonsense note to her daughter Barbara, Evelyn stipulates that she wishes to be cremated, with her ashes sealed up in a bowling ball and "dropped into Lake Wobegon off Rocky Point." What's more, in the same letter Evelyn unapologetically reveals that for years she's been conducting a passionate love affair with a retired TV weatherman.

The fun begins when Barbara, a school cafeteria helper with a not-so-secret drinking problem -- in Lake Wobegon, nobody has any secrets -- decides to follow her mother's last wishes to a T, over the outraged objections of most of the rest of the Peterson clan.

Funerals have been favorite dramatic framing devices for American humorists since Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn attended their own. As the Petersons gather in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Keillor gets plenty of comic mileage out of the preparations for Evelyn's unusual interment. At the same time, wild Debbie Detmer -- Lake Wobegon's bad girl made good as an animal aroma therapist -- comes home to marry her thoroughly unpleasant, jetsetting fianc¿.

Pontoon, Garrison Keillor's first Lake Wobegon novel in six years, abounds with good-humored satire, lyrical evocations of Keillor's beloved Midwestern community and characters as believable as your next-door neighbors. My favorite is Barbara. Now that her powerhouse mother is gone, she admirably decides to take charge of her own life. In a few short days, she kicks booze, religion and a co-dependent relationship with a commitment-shy 400-pound convenience store clerk.

From time to time, Keillor's seemingly effortless riffs on his characters slow down his story. Fortunately, Evelyn and Barbara carry the day, with the help of a gaggle of Danish ministers touring America and a "Flying Elvis" who parachutes out of the northern Minnesota sky crooning "Love Me" at Evelyn's funeral.

In these parlous latter days, contemporary fiction isn't, heaven forbid, supposed to be entertaining and funny. I hope I'm not tolling the death knell for Pontoon by admitting that I don't recall laughing out loud over a novel so frequently since the last time I read A Confederacy of Dunces. For my money, that's a tribute to Keillor's highly skilled storytelling -- even if Pontoon is unaffectedly good-natured, entirely accessible and informed on every page by Evelyn's shrewd and tolerant observation that "there's a lot of human nature in everybody." *

-- Howard Frank Mosher's latest novel is "On Kingdom Mountain."

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