Book excerpt: “Boom Town: A Lake Wobegon Novel” by Garrison Keillor
May 15, 2022
Humorist Garrison Keillor returns to his fictional Minnesota hometown of Lake Wobegon (made famous by the long-running radio program “A Prairie Home Companion,” and the subject of numerous story collections). In “Boom Town: A Lake Wobegon Novel,” the town is now the setting for the funerals of childhood friends.
Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss correspondent Anthony Mason’s interview with Garrison Keillor on “CBS Sunday Morning” May 15!
A New World
I flew back home to Minnesota for my best friend’s funeral last spring over the objections of my wife who was leery of COVID, which was raging in Minnesota thanks to anti-vaxxers, many of them devout Christians like my cousins who put up “Prepare to meet thy God” signs along the road and who believed the virus meant a quicker trip to glory but Norm went down from cardiac arrest in his driveway, an easy death. He wanted to go in his sleep, but anyway it was quick. He was a big person in my life and so was his sister Arlene and to skip the funeral out of fear of infection seemed to me unworthy and a denial of reality even worse than the evangelicals’ resistance to medical science so I boarded Delta at Terminal D at LaGuardia and returned to my origins. He died on May Day and it was a shock but not a surprise: Norm always said, when asked how he was, “Never better,” but in March he switched to “Okay” and a few weeks later to “Not bad,” a rather steep decline.
I rented a car at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and drove north to Lake Wobegon and noticed, nearing town, that the “Prepare to meet thy God” sign was gone. I stopped and got out of the car. It lay in tall weeds by a barbed-wire fence. Someone had shot it with a shotgun and the Pre was gone and the stake was busted. I left it lying there but the phrase “Pare to meet thy God” stuck with me. Cut back on excess, trim the nonessential. A good motto for a man nearing 80. Set aside ego and the craving for widespread approval, ditch your bag of stupid regrets, abandon pleasures no longer pleasurable, love your neighbor, and you will find yourself in God’s presence. My cousin Rose, who was named not for the flower but for the Resurrection, sends me a birthday card every year: God is moving the waters. He is bringing this dispensation to a close. We may not be here tomorrow. I pray you are waiting on Him. It’s sweet. To think of someone waiting decades for Rapturization. I do appreciate her interest in me.
I called Giselle in New York and left a message that I love her and drove into town and noticed the ruins of the EZFreeze. Not much happened in the town of my youth and when something did, my dad would say, “It was the biggest thing since they got the bug zapper at the EZFreeze.” The zapper was a big neon ring under the eave that electrocuted mosquitos. Now it’s gone, the symbol of progress.
So is the Lake Wobegon Maternity Hospital, the big white house where I was born in the summer of 1942, which caused no stir at the time nor does the fact that I’m still living. I am here as a result of good luck. As a kid, I stood on the front seat of the car, no seat belt, as Dad drove 80 mph on a two-lane road to get to Bible camp in the Badlands of South Dakota, driving at top speed so we wouldn’t need to stop at a motel. I survived it and also the preaching, which was all about imminent death, ships sinking, car crashes, furnaces blowing up, storms with lightning. We fundamentalists were grim, like people living in a coal mine, but if I looked grim, my cheerful mother would say, “What’s the matter? Did the dog pee on your cinnamon toast?” and that made me smile, and it still does, imagining a dog going to the trouble of getting up on the table to do that. Wobegonians were cheerful stoics and if you asked “How are you?” they said “Fine” unless they were lying on the ground and there was external bleeding. Lighten up. Life is good. It could be worse. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Winter is not a personal experience: everybody else is just as cold as you are. Take it one day at a time. Make something of yourself. Don’t be a ten-dollar haircut on a 59-cent head. Find out what you’re good at and do it. That was our way.
Growing up in the coal mine, your people warn you against ascending to the surface, but eventually you do and WOW you see trees, the sky, you feel rain and wind, you get to know Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, you go to movies. I left when I was 18 to make my way in the world and I married a girl from New York who was not a coal miner and we moved there to make her happy and now I go back home mainly for funerals, which these days are for people my age, which gets my attention, an obituary with my number in it. Old rocknrollers, ballplayers, movie stars, cousins, classmates, I pay attention, I read the story closely and guess at the omissions.
So I came back to pay my respects to my old pal Norm who’d stayed a good friend though I was a writer and he took over his dad’s trash route, and we confided in each other, he was the only one I told about my cruelty and disloyalty, my vanity, my miserable sins, dumb things I did, dumber than you’d think a grown man capable of, dumber than a boxful of hammers, and I walked into Lundberg’s Mortuary and there he was, freshly laundered lying in a box with floral arrangements around him, and I felt a sort of relief. The man knew all my sins, which would now go to the grave with him. I hated to think it but it felt like I’d been given a fresh start in life.
A woman spoke to me and I jumped. She was looking over my shoulder at the corpse. “They got the wrong tie on him,” she said. It was Pastor Liz from the Lutheran church. “Nancy gave them a blue tie. Norm never wore a red tie in his life. Lundberg is such a f***up.” She laughed: “Did I just say ‘f***up’?”
As it happened, I was wearing a blue tie so I took it off and got Norm’s red tie off and looped mine around his neck, which was rather wooden, and stood up at the head of the casket so I could figure out how to tie it, and it came out pretty good.
“It’s good of you to come all this way,” she said. “Hnnhh,” I said.
I’ve come back for the funerals of teachers, Mr. Faust, Mr. Bradley, Miss Story, LaVona Person. I meant to come back in 2020 for the funeral of Julie Christensen who was a year older than I, a seventh-grader, who watched me walk by her yard on my way to shoot baskets and she said, “Do you want to wrestle?” and I stopped. She was a long-legged girl in green shorts and a white T-shirt. I walked over to talk to her and she grabbed me and threw me down on the grass and sat on me, her hot mint-scented breath in my face, her legs scissored around me. She said, “Try to get up” but I didn’t want to. She was strong. She said, “Have you ever been kissed?” and then she kissed me and stuck her tongue in my mouth. I’d never seen that done before, never imagined it. She said, “I’ll bet you want to see my tits, don’t you.” I shook my head no, and she lifted her shirt, and I closed my eyes. It was a big moment. I shook my head because a Brethren boy should, but I did want to see, and I didn’t close my eyes, I squinted, and it was very interesting. She said, “If you tell anybody, I’ll beat the crap out of you. I mean it.” When she died at 79 from myeloma, the funeral was on a Saturday and I had to do a show in New York, but I grieved for her, my liberator. So was Norm’s sister Arlene but that’s a whole other story.
Norm and I each grew up in homes where pennies were pinched, our mothers darned socks and mended clothes until they wore out and then cut them into strips and wove them into rag rugs. We were brought up to use bars of soap until they were thin slivers in our hands and then wash with the slivers. We each experienced shame early: his dad was a terrible speller and liked to write letters to the editor, which the printers at the paper, both of them drunks, never corrected and so his dad was often in print with hideous errors that our fellow third-graders were highly amused by such as “hangkerchiff” and “judgmint” and “without acception.” In addition to my Brethrenness, I was the first boy in the class to get glasses, which made me a lousy ballplayer in grade school and got me the nickname “Perfessor.” So Norm knew where I came from and I confessed most of my sins to him except the sin of feeling superior to him, which anyway faded out after 65. There is not much superiority in old age, just good luck. He and I grew old together and became relics, the last in our circle of pals to have driven a Model T Ford, the very last to have participated in the prank of privy tipping, which we did at the age of twelve, along with older boys, all of them dead now, at the lake cabin of Harold Starr the publisher of the town paper, sitting in his outhouse one evening, on the throne with his trousers around his ankles, as we crept through the underbrush and heaved the privy over onto its door as the gentleman cursed us, trapped within, left with only one exit.
We were the last ones to have used the Sons of Knute’s Big Boy fiberglass duck decoys, eighteen feet long: the hunter lay on his back inside the duck and pedaled the driveshaft that turned the propeller as he looked out through a periscope in the duck’s neck, scanning the skies for incoming ducks. The e Knutes had six of them and they were too tippy and four decoys sank and Norm and I found the two survivors and paddled them around, with concrete blocks for ballast. Nobody else remembers this.
In recent years, I’m sure, we looked at each other and wondered which of us would be standing and looking down at the other one in the box. So it’s me, and I miss him. There is nobody left for me to talk about Julie Christensen with or our teachers LaVona Person or Helen Story or reminisce about the county fair back when it had a dirt racetrack and the older brothers of boys we knew went tearing around it in souped-up cars and dared death in order to impress girls. And now here was Norm waiting for the right moment to spring up from the coffin and say, “It was only a joke!” but death has disabled him, there’s no spring left in him, he’s become ornamental. The line has gone dead.
He stayed in Lake Wobegon and I went out into the world and had a career, and he remained my trusty friend and faithful informant. He told me a few years ago, “It’s a whole different town. You wouldn’t recognize it. The e guys you and I grew up with are old coots sitting in the corner and grousing. We used to play hockey on rinks we flooded ourselves and we built goals out of packing crates and we used magazines for shin guards, now they drive the kids into Willmar to an indoor rink. Now they close the schools if more than two inches of snow is forecast because falling snow can trigger anxiety for some kids who may need counseling or medication.” (Back in our day, school was never canceled unless the building was no longer visible. There was no windchill index or misery index, we didn’t think in those terms. In a blizzard, your dad tied a clothesline to your belt so he could reel you in if he had to and the clothesline was a hundred feet long, the distance from the house out to the county road, and when the line went taut you knew you were there and you waited for the headlights to appear in the whiteness and if it was windy, you might have to dig a cave in the snow and if the bus didn’t come for a couple hours, you reeled yourself back home. Snow was not a mental health issue.)
It troubled Norm that the Christmas program at the high school was now called the Happy Holiday program, and the word “Savior” was changed to “Teacher” and Vacation Bible School was now called Spiritual Awareness and was about showing respect for others and not about the rough stuff, Noah and the Flood, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac. And the old songbooks have been banned with old faves like “Frankie and Johnny” (“The first time she shot him, he staggered. The second time she shot him he fell. The third time there was a southwest wind from the northeast corner of hell.”) and “The E-ri-e was a-rising and the gin was getting low and I scarcely think we’ll get a drink till we come to Buffalo.” — songs that we sang in the third grade, they’ve been replaced by songs about brotherhood, meanwhile, thanks to the internet, words considered obscene by truckers are being used freely by small children.
“Me and you were the end of an era, mister,” he said. “The last of the free and the brave. Our neighbor lady has three kids and has an app so she can track them around town by their cellphones. Turn on the computer and there’s a blue and a red and a yellow dot to show where Mason, Logan, and Salem are. Surveillance of children. It wouldn’t surprise me if she taps their phones too.
“You and me were lucky to live when we did. It wasn’t all Zoom and Facebook. People got together in person to chew the fat. The men sat in the living room and watched football and talked about crops and hunting and the women in the kitchen talked about births and surgeries and now they just post pictures on Instagram and no secrets are told for fear of who might be reading. It’s a damn shame.”
Liz left to go looking for Norm’s wife, Nancy, and the moment she left, Lundberg came in, not George Lundberg, whom I knew, but his son George Jr., who took over the business when the old man developed dementia from inhaling preservatives and one day he dumped Soderberg’s ashes into the toilet. She had wanted them to be scattered on the river and the old man figured flushing them amounted to the same thing, so he had to go to the loony bin and the son, who wanted to be a painter, not an undertaker, stepped in, a sour man with a woofy voice who never developed the warm avuncular unctuosity of a funeral director. He glared at me and said, “Huh. So you came after all. They said you were coming but I figured a big shot like you’s got better things to do with his time. Guess I was wrong. Anyways, two more of your classmates died over the weekend, Ronnie Hansen from a car crash and Peter Flanagan from what he thought was cancer but it was COVID. So
I guess your timing is perfect. How’re you doing? I don’t suppose you’ll have your funeral back here. Have it in some big cathedral in New York City so all your famous pals can attend. Right? Well, good luck with that. The problem with being famous is that when you die they can’t wait to say bad things about you. Any scandal, no matter how small, it goes into the second paragraph of your obituary. All your so-called admirers, they love to dish out the gossip. But I’m sure you know that.”
I didn’t bother correcting him. What I love about New York isn’t famous friends but Giselle, eating lunch with her down on Grove Street in the Village, oysters on the half shell, meatballs, an iceberg wedge,
driving up to our summerhouse on the Connecticut River, and Giselle has my permission to put my ashes in her flower bed by the garage where they likely won’t bother whatever man takes my place in her life, and meanwhile I’m glad to return home in honor of my ghosts.
I got out of Lundberg’s and headed down the street and there, fifty feet away where there used to be a driveway next to Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, was a little sidewalk café called Laura’s Lunch and there, sitting around a table under an umbrella, were my old classmates Clint and Dave and Billy and Daryl, and Clint looked at me and said, “Well, look what the wind blew in,” which was exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to hear and Dave pulled in an extra chair and said, “Good of you to get out of the fast lane and come join us common folks” and I sat down and suddenly it wasn’t 2021 anymore, it was a moment of timelessness.
Billy: “You look a little lost. Can we help you find something?”
Dave: “You look a lot like someone I used to know. The class oddball.”
Daryl: “Sit down and take a load off. We just ordered lunch.”