It is said you either love Garrison Keillor live on the radio and are mild about his book "Lake Wobegon Days" or vice versa. Tonight at 8 on Channel 26 you can see him read from the book before a live Library of Congress audience, so that should make everybody happy.
Or, conceivably, nobody.
But it works. Seeing him read stories in that easy, offhand, caressing voice puts them into your mind as vividly as hearing him ramble through those meandering anecdotes he relates on his public radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," without even a script. In fact, his first tale is not a reading at all, but an ad-lib reminiscence about the Sugar Creek Gang of Christian Boys that somehow turns into a rap about his Minnesota Christmases.
His father didn't approve of Christmas, he says, and always gave worthwhile presents having to do with the Bible. He tells of spotting the familiar package containing yet another of the 27 volumes of Bible commentary that are to be his heritage and opening it first -- "Oh Dad! Is this what I think it is?" -- all the while trying to keep his eyes off the still-wrapped Lionel cattle-loader car.
Then it is literature. "I think of literature every year." And about getting Book-of-the-Month Club loss leaders ("the Durants . . . Churchill . . . my relatives were kicked out of the club for joining too many times") until he had collected all the books he never read in college.
And so to his own book, his ultimate revenge for all that literature. "I never laughed the whole time I wrote it. I didn't even snort. But you go right ahead."
It is only a brief taste we get of the rich saga of Lake Wobegon, or Lac Malheur, as the French explorers called it. But the Sidetrack Tap and the Chatterbox Cafe' are there, and the statue of the Unknown Norwegian, upon which one of his characters relieves himself one cold Christmas Eve. The story is vintage Keillor, not so much scatological as zestful.
On to the next. "I'd better check this one for language," he mutters. "I didn't come all the way to Washington to use the word 'bladder' three times in one evening."
Then we learn about the mother who goes into a cleaning frenzy, rousts out her family and sets them to chores, belaboring her husband (" 'What's the big rush?' he said. She was more than ready to tell him. She had been talking to him long before he showed up") and fixing everyone a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, to be eaten standing up.
The dialogue is as sharp as my Uncle Nick's bone-handled razor.
In case you ever doubted he was from Minnesota, he pronounces "rooting" with the short "o" of "book." He is authentic, all right.
There isn't time for him to do justice to the gentle reveries that are his trademark, descriptions just this side of satire that can move an audience to choked-up silence. He does manage a couple of moments, however, and this is important, for these are the moments that set Keillor apart from most stand-up humorists, the moments that bring it all together, that remind us, if only for a while, of the sweetness of life.