In “That Time of Year,” Garrison Keillor engagingly tells his tale as a shy, awkward writer who found fame and fortune almost by accident as a radio personality. That fame and fortune might have ruined him, but it didn’t. Humor, it seems, has helped him more than once—and more than a little.
That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life, by Garrison Keillor. (360 pages, Arcade Publishing, 2020)
Yes, this is the time of this near-octogenarian’s life when “yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang upon those boughs which shake against the cold.” It’s also a time to remember those “bare-ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” In these pages Garrison Keillor does a whole lot of remembering, whether of songs written or sung and whether the singers were the sweetest of songstress birds or Mr. Keillor himself or entire Prairie Home Companion audiences.
The result is a memoir that must have been (mostly) delightful to write and is entirely delightful to read. In fact, it’s a companion of sorts to Prairie Home Companion. Like the show itself, Mr. Keillor’s recollections occasion many a chuckle and more than an occasional belly laugh.
Unlike the show, there are more than occasional dark moments as well—unless one counts Guy Noir on the radio and on the prowl as constituting at least a shading into darkness.
In any case, some of the dark moments experienced by Mr. Keillor are explained and amplified, and some of them aren’t. But no matter. The impact of each on Keillor the youngster and Keillor the oldster no doubt helps explain why comedy has long been his answer to “life’s persistent questions.”
Guy Noir he wasn’t—and was. Solving crimes was never Mr. Keillor’s gig. But seeking answers to questions, whether persistent, puzzling, or personal, has been both his vocation and avocation, and whether he was putting his weekly show together at the last possible moment or whether he was putting his life back together more than once.
No matter where he was, Mr. Keillor was always both a participant and an observer. In a sense, each of us is both as well. So let’s amend that judgment just a bit: It seems that no matter whether he was on stage or off, he was more observer than participant.
Now let’s amend that just a bit, too. Off-stage he usually was comfortably uncomfortable; on-stage he generally was comfortable, if sometimes in an uncomfortable sort of way.
But no matter where he was or just how comfortable or uncomfortable he might have been, Mr. Keillor has always been first and last a writer, whether of songs or poems, limericks or sonnets, novels or short stories, screenplays or memoirs. His commitment to writing began in his early teens, and it likely will not end until his life ends. In sum, he is a serious writer who is seriously committed to helping others—himself included—chuckle, smile, and even laugh out loud.
His observer status may be the result of some innate shyness. Who knows for sure? Mr. Keillor may, but he’s not about to tell us. Introspection is not this memoirist’s gig either. Maybe it might have been, had he only taken his own daily ration of Powdermilk biscuits to give him the strength to sit down to do what needed to be done.
Still, there is nothing wrong with adding to the store of laughter in this troubled world. Hilaire Belloc was surely right. We are the only laughing animals. But laughter doesn’t always come easily or often to most of us. We may want to laugh. We surely need to laugh. We sometimes can’t help but laugh. But we all could use a little help in this department, and Garrison Keillor has been on hand for nearly half a century to provide such help, whether for others or for himself.
Goodness knows, a Brethren boy needed all the help that he could get—or create. A splinter sect of evangelicals, the Brethren was a second home for the Keillor family of Anoka, Minnesota.
Long since encroached upon by exurbia, the Anoka of Mr. Keillor’s youth was a small town within a bike ride to downtown Minneapolis by a ten-year-old boy. The youthful Gary Keillor made that journey more than a few times, whether to escape swimming lessons or explore the Minneapolis Public Library—or both at the same time.
The Brethren may have been quick to express their love for God, but not for one another. No Brethren man, Mr. Keillor confides, ever looked at him and said “I love you.” Mr. Keillor then quickly adds that he “would have been embarrassed if one had.”
Such talk is “still rare in Minnesota,” he explains. Former St. Paul mayor George Latimer recently did tell Mr. Keillor that he loved him. But Mr. Keillor is quick to explain some more: After all, Latimer “was 85 and it was the cocktail hour and it was over the phone during a pandemic and he was feeling blue and it was snowing and George is a liberal Democrat.”
Speaking of love, fans of the Prairie Home Companion will love this book—and rightly so. But lines like this are offered in evidence for this reviewer’s contention that folks who have never read Mr. Keillor or listened to his show will find themselves loving this book as well. Even non-Minnesotans will find themselves loving what amounts to a love letter to Mr. Keillor’s home state.
It may be—no, it is—too much to say, as Slate does on the cover, that Mr. Keillor possesses the “genuine wisdom of a Mark Twain.” But surely he is a gifted storyteller and a seriously funny fellow, who has now written a memoir in which both talents are on full display.
This is also an engaging, even disarmingly, honest memoir. It isn’t searingly honest. Nor is it thoroughly honest, if only because it isn’t introspectively deep. But engaging and disarming it is, whether the subject is either of his two failed marriages or his brutal separation from Minnesota Public Radio over what amounted to an essentially bogus sexual harassment claim.
It is more than ironic that two iconic Minnesota liberals, two very different funny men, Garrison Keillor and Al Franken, got caught in the crosshairs of the MeToo movement. What makes it all doubly ironic is that both men seem to have been not just caught, but unfairly railroaded. Mr. Keillor certainly thinks that he has, and there is little reason to doubt him, especially given his engaging honesty about prior misdeeds and missteps.
Without a doubt, Mr. Keillor has long been a Minnesota liberal icon. But this is not a political memoir. That said, one wishes that it might have been—at least to the extent of offering some engaging honesty and personal history on the subject. That said, there are a few out-of-the-blue political shots. President Trump is mentioned once, as in Mr. Keillor is pleased to report that Minnesota did not follow its neighboring states by adding its electoral votes to the Trump total in 2016. Otherwise, he would have had to copy his Minnesota literary hero, poet John Berryman, who years earlier had jumped to his death from the bridge that spans the Mississippi River and divides the east and west campuses of the University of Minnesota.
But we get no excavation into Mr. Keillor’s political history or leanings. We get nothing that would help explain why he became a Minnesota liberal icon. Is it traceable to his own love affair with the New Yorker and New York? Who knows? Does it run against the folks of his mythical lake Wobegon, who might well have had good reason to support Mr. Trump? Once again, who knows?
Instead, we get plenty of Keillor family history. It is history that he savors, history that is complete with family stories of people, especially aunts, whom he dearly loved.
That love may have been rooted in the Brethren, the sect within which he was raised. Does he love his family despite the Brethren or because of them—or both? Once again, Mr. Keillor is silent.
He does tell us that he left the Brethren long ago. There doesn’t seem to have been any sort of terrible parting. Nor is he about any business of blaming—or praising—the Brethren for retarding—or spurring—his development as a writer.
While Mr. Keillor did leave the Brethren behind, he has not done the same with organized religion. He and his third wife, singer Jenny Lind, are comfortable, it seems, as Minneapolis Episcopalians. It’s all very nice and easy, and at moments it is also the subject of mild humor. But it also would have been nice, not to mention engagingly honest, if Mr. Keillor had stopped his gentle reminiscing long enough to explain his religious journey.
These two large gaps aside, we can be thankful that Mr. Keillor did take the time to tell his story as engagingly as he has. That story is the tale of a shy, even awkward writer who found fame and fortune almost by accident as a radio personality. That fame and fortune might have ruined him, but it didn’t. Humor, it seems, has helped him more than once—and more than a little.
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