The Keillor Reader by Garrison Keillor, Viking, 361 pages ($27.95). It was Mark Twain, of course, who was the paradigmatic literary celebrity in America. In his time, he was as much of a touring performer in white suit to his fellow citizens as a writer. It was only in the years after that his stature as what might be called a standup essayist came to seem something obtruding on the cornerstone literary master whose “Adventures of Huckleberry” is universally considered at the zenith of American literary art (and perhaps our greatest novel).
Garrison Keillor has never produced anything within a mile of “Huckleberry Finn” nor, is it safe to say, will he ever. But he has Twain’s problematic dual citizenship in a way that no other American “humorist” ever has – not even Robert Benchley in those famous film shorts, radio and theatrical appearances. Keillor’s vision of life in Lake Wobegon and his soft, generous basso on “The Prairie Home Companion” have made him a far more beloved performer – live, on radio, in Robert Altman’s remarkable “Prairie” movie – than he ever was as a writer.
This superb book comes close to a reconfiguration of that equation in the calculus of reputation in America. Read its new introduction and quite a few of its pieces (many of which are brand-new between covers) and you encounter a figure who clearly considers himself all of a piece. On the other hand, spending a paragraph in the introduction to what is, after all, a definitive one-volume Keillor as writer acknowledging everyone by name involved in “The Prairie Home Companion” is lovably loyal and human but also pure post-Oscar showbiz, not literature.
It would be a grave mistake, nevertheless, for anyone to underestimate just how marvelous a writer Garrison Keillor has always been since the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, in a letter charmingly reproduced here, accepted his story “Local Family Keeps Son Happy” from Keillor’s “Child’s Life of Richard Nixon” in 1970. “I feel boyish most days and sort of jazzy,” he writes now, “and imagine I could still hit a hard cross-court backhand and ride a bike no-handed but then I cross a street and see oncoming traffic and I break into a gallop and there is no gallop. I run like a frightened duck.”
– Jeff Simon