AS THE NARRATOR of these tales himself asks, what is so special about Lake Wobegon, Minnesota (963 alt., 942 pop.)? What is there about a town whose own motto Sumus quod sumus (**p.2) raises mediocrity to the level of creed, that it should deserve, not only its own weekly radio program, but a handsomely bound tribute of over 300 pages? Why is it that people driving into Minnesota from all over this vast country of ours ask the natives for directions to this place which is not the headwaters of the Mississippi and which does not appear on any map (due, the author says, to a cartographic error by the Coleman Survey of 1866 which omitted 50 square miles of central Minnesota, "an error that lives on in the FAA's Coleman Course Correction, a sudden lurch felt by airline passengers as they descended into Minnesota air space on flights from New York or Boston")?
It all began back in the spring of 1974 when a promising young writer from Minnesota lost a briefcase, containing two short stories he
had just written, in the men's washroom of a train station in Portland, Oregon. There were, of course, no carbons. So he began to memorialize the setting of one of those priceless but forgotten stories in monologues on a radio show that summer, "hoping that one Saturday night, standing on stage, I would suddenly see a bright light and my lost story would come down out of the ceiling and land in my head. . . . Sometimes, standing in the wings, I feel that story brush against my face and think I'll remember it -- maybe if I closed my eyes it would land on my shoulder like one of the Performing Gospel Birds. This book," he concludes, "while not nearly so fine, will have to suffice until it returns."
AND suffice it does. As they used to say in the Lake Wobegon of my childhood, it is a "gracious sufficiency." This is a very funny book, but its humor, like charity in Corinthians, "suffereth long and is kind." Keillor takes his sweet time to tell each tale, digressing into footnotes or parentheses or just plain changing the subject whenever he chooses. To eyes and ears accustomed to being battered by the obvious, Keillor's tales may appear to ramble on pointlessly. Accounts of sadness and tragedy -- grandma's death, the bear that closed New Albion College, the diptheria epidemic of 1865 -- are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the book which is always good humored. There are pages of wry smiles and chuckles, and then, when you least expect it, a scene or a single line within a lengthy description that will have you weeping with laughter, unable to keep reading aloud, for surely by now you will be reading the book aloud to anyone within earshot.
I was reading the Boy Scout Troop section aloud on Route 13 somewhere south of Harrington, Delaware, and when I got to the semaphore message "URGENT/SEND HEAP/I'M BADLY CURT" was reduced to inarticulate squeaks, much to the frustration of the driver. But the hilarity blossoms because Keillor has carefully planted the seeds and patiently tended the tale. He's not in any hurry. He's not going anywhere, and he dares what few comics today can, he dares to trust that his audience isn't going anywhere either, at least, not until they have heard the whole story.
It wouldn't be fair either to the author or the reader to go through the book picking out wonderful bits to quote out of context, context being what this book is all about, but a word must be said about the people in this book. Living in a town "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average," as Keillor tells his radio audience every week, are individuals so intently portrayed that they emerge as universal figures.
There's Art who runs Art's Bait & Night O'Rest Motel who threatens to run off any guest who cleans fish on the picnic tables and proceeds to do so. Einar Tingvold, with his white crewcut, horn-rimmed glasses, and bobbing Adam's apple, struggles valiantly and with growing desperation to turn Lake Wobegon's boys into the Scout Ideal. Elizabeth, the switchboard operator, who knows everyone's business, doesn't hesitate to tell the narrator when she's disappointed in him. But, then, she knew his grandfather and remembers a January night long before when the old man woke up all the children in his house and took them outside to see a wolf, silver in the moonlight. "Your grandpa knelt down and put his arms around us and said, 'I want you to take a good look and remember this because you may never get to see it again.' So we looked real good . . . and everything that's happened since is like a long dream."
In recalling the mostly silent forebears of Lake Wobegon the narrator quotes a bit of homely philosophy: "No innocent man buys a gun and no happy man writes his memoirs." Maybe not. But a man who has lived in and out of happiness into maturity might reach back into the straw of his beginnings and spin a golden tale, proving that: "Some luck lies in getting what you have which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known." And bequeathing thereby a gracious sufficiency.
**We are what we are. Motto on town crest. And while we're at it, a footnote about footnotes in "Lake Wobegon Days." Don't skip them. They contain not only vital but occasionally hilarious material which you would be sorry to miss. The fact that one of these footnotes runs on to 13 pages in length should not be allowed to daunt the reader of this book. Hard work to no apparent purpose being one of the hallmarks of a true Wobegonian.