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Riding on Garrison Keillor’s Pontoon

posted by xscot mcknight

My own definition of what counts as a “novel” fluctuates. You might say I fudge. If it is a classic, like Homer’s stuff, it’s not fiction. If it is theological, it’s theology. Otherwise, I don’t read novels. Unless it’s the hilarious humor of Garrison Keillor. I’ve read all of his books I think, so when I saw Pontoon, I forked over the money and sat down recently and read the thing.
Let’s hear from his fans and readers. Which of his books do you like most? Any critical response to his work, especially as it has developed since the early 80s.
What do I like most about his books? It’s his ability to start with some odd fact and by the end of the long paragraph, sometimes a page later, we’ve gotten to where one would never expect. It’s like a parenthesis within a parenthesis within a few more and before long you’re laughing and cackling and wondering how in the world he does it.
Pontoon combines the funeral of Evelyn Peterson — cremation with the ashes put in a bowling ball and then dropped from the sky (sort of) into Lake Wobegon by a young kid flying on a parasail but the driver gets all mixed up with some huge ducks on the lake and a pontoon full of Danish pastors who have become all but atheists — with a wedding, actually a commitment, that falls apart and now you’ve got the making of all his nonsense.
What do I not like about Keillor? About the time he wrote WLT: A Radio Romance Keillor included too much sex (he doesn’t seem to have any Scandinavian reserve in this subject) and he’s not let up since. This book has a few episodes that lacked taste.
More seriously, in the last few books he’s started juxtaposing sex and the Christian faith in ways that, at times, strike me as cheap and classless. Those scenes sadden me because there are better ways to expose the failure of the Christian faith.
His capacity to spin a yarn, expose the weaknesses of humans, entertain, and carry us all forward a step or two … and his ability to write and his voice … well, I’ll be in line the next time another Wobegon novel comes out.
Here’s the Amazon link to Keillor … my favorite remains Lake Wobegon Days, but I’ve read them all.

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posted December 31, 2007 at 1:45 am

I’ve read a few of Keillor’s books and enjoyed all in their own way. My favorite stuff tends to track closely with his voice and style found in the weekly radio show itself. Definitely like “Lake Wobegon Days” as well. But I think “Leaving Home” would be my favorite. As a collection of short stories that first appeared as the “News from Lake Wobegon” segments in the initial installment of A Prairie Home Companion, my wife and I still pull it back off the shelf to relive the humor of favorite stories.

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posted December 31, 2007 at 2:51 am

I think Garrison Keillor is a true American literary genius. But I’m not all that thrilled with the way he attacks conservatives in general and Republicans in particular. By doing that, he automatically alienates about half his readers and listeners. I know, I know, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat — there’s nothing wrong with that — but his brand of sarcasm would be much easier to swallow if he would take aim at Democrats and liberals, thus providing some semblance of balance to his political polemics. Just so you know — I consider myself an independent, sort of a fiscal conservative and social liberal. I guess that puts me squarely in the political mugwump camp and if it does, so be it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to “Pontoon” before retiring for the night.

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posted December 31, 2007 at 8:31 am

I love his Lake Wobegon books, but his other novels seem formulaic and crass.

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Matt Stead

posted December 31, 2007 at 8:40 am

Scot, I agree with your assessment of Keillor. I too enjoy the way he spins a yarn, but could do without the crassness. Lake Wobegon is my favorite, as well as the News from Lake Wobegon from the Prairie Home Companion. I’ve taken to sharing a “It’s been a quiet week at GCoC” at our annual December Banquet. The segment comes complete with commercials (“Boiled Peanuts” to remind you that life could be worse) and the main characters drawn from our little congregation.

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posted December 31, 2007 at 8:43 am

Pontoons and Lutefisk «

[…] (It turns out my good friend, Scot McKnight, was reading Pontoon contemporaneously with me.? Unlike Scot, I like a little sex in my novels — it makes them more real, since sex is a part of life.) […]

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posted December 31, 2007 at 8:49 am

thanks for the nudge … I finally got around to ordering his book (Lake Wobegon Days). Must have been the part about the classless sex (just kidding).
All seriousness aside, humor is an important part of our lives right now….

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posted December 31, 2007 at 8:53 am

I have not read Keillor. But I love his radio program. I’m guessing the public media keeps him from airing the same sensual excess he does in his books. Thanks for the recommendation, Scot.
On the subject of novels, I just finished “The Shack” last night, and wonder if you’ve heard of this yet. If you haven’t I’m guessing you will. It’s one of those books that’s bound to catch on. If you have read it, do you have plans to review it? There’s lots of anecdotal theological commentary that I’m sure will appeal to a broad audience, both Christian and non. But I’m wondering where most readers will see reality end and fiction begin. (The author claims the events actually take place…)
Penny for your thoughts? :)

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posted December 31, 2007 at 8:58 am

BTW, merry christmas, and happy new year’s eve!

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posted December 31, 2007 at 9:38 am

English prof. Paula Carlson talks about “unexpected unsettledness” of Christianity in Keillor’s stories: the people of Lake Woebegon want their religion to be safe, neat and predictable (the sheet cake at confirmation) and yet it breaks into their lives in unexpected ways (eg, faith crisis of the soon-to-be confirmed teen). It challenges, surprises and transforms them, Carlson argues.
Oddly, although I love fiction and I love Keillor, I haven’t read any of his novels. I like Prairie Home Companion, and I’ll open the op-ed page of the Baltimore Sun every Thursday just to read his column. I’m usually astonished at how good it is. I picked up Pontoon in the book store when it came out, read a few pages in the bookstore cafe and decided I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I may try again. As we say, “so little time, so much to read.”

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John Frye

posted December 31, 2007 at 10:13 am

Julie and I enjoy both Keillor’s *Prairie Home Companion* and his book *Leaving Home*–the collection of “news from Lake Wobegon” stories. We weren’t aware of the crassness in some of his other writings.
Keillor has an ability with humor to peel the veneer off of pretentious religiosity and show its ugliness.

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Jason Dye

posted December 31, 2007 at 10:15 am

not read his books (maybe a part from LWD), but this one sounds a lot like his News from Lake Wobegon show, which i’ve been listening to almost religiously again, and which is – b/c the holidays – referring to lutefisk an awful lot.

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john alan turner

posted December 31, 2007 at 10:48 am

It wasn’t a novel — it was a collection of short stories — but I liked THE BOOK OF GUYS.

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posted December 31, 2007 at 11:40 am

Like others I have not read many of his novels, but am a great fan of his radio program and read his columns when I find them. I appreciate his ability to not take any part of life too seriously. Even as he satirizes it, he values tradition. I believe his religion went into the mix from which his politics (which I would call liberal/libertarian) evolved, and I identify with that as well. I have yet to be offended by his satirization of religion, but occasionally find some (not all) of his bathroom humor gratuitous, perhaps even juvenile.
On the whole I think the work of Garrison Keillor captures some of the best aspects of American culture.

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Bob Brague

posted December 31, 2007 at 11:58 am

It was because I enjoy GK’s radio program that I picked up Pontoon, and I must admit I was shocked at the “in-your-face” sex and tawdriness. I expected better of Mr. Garrison Keillor. His image has been so squeaky clean for years that I suppose he has some inner need to sully it himself. All the stuff bottled up inside him that can’t come out on the radio because of the FCC must come tumbling forth when he puts pen to paper.
I will continue listening to his radio program, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of his books. Fannie Flagg is much better at the genre (even though her theology is a little weird).

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Michelle Van Loon

posted December 31, 2007 at 3:38 pm

I am a huge Lake Woebegone fan – my love for this imaginary place has been reignited in recent months by the discovery of weekly free podcasts at iTunes of just this segment of Prairie Home Companion. I’ve read and reread Lake Woebegone Days, and would camp out at a bookstore to grab a new sequel if ever one was released.
On the other hand, I can’t abide Keillor’s other stuff.

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posted December 31, 2007 at 4:18 pm

I live in Anoka….home of the Keillor family! The saddest part in all of this is that his brother is a devote pastor. So yes, the shots at Christian faith are a bit rough…but there is a story behind it.

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posted December 31, 2007 at 4:43 pm

I enjoy Prairie Home Companion when I catch it on the radio. Having spent a good portion of my life in the upper NW corner of Minnesota, I enjoy his satiric commentary on the Catholic and Lutheran conflicts and the Scandinavian culture/lifestyle. If I didn’t live in the area and weren’t surrounded by Scandinavians (I am also half Norwegian), I would find his humour dull and boring. I like the Guy Noir, Private Eye segment of PHC more than anything else.
as for his books…haven’t read any. I tried reading LWD and couldn’t get through it. For the most part, I do enjoy his editorials in the Tribune. They’re so random and strange. He takes mundane things in life and makes them interesting. Maybe it’s just in small doses that I can read Keillor. I think he has gotten cynical as he’s aged though–a common Scandinavian trait. ;-)

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Bob Brague

posted January 1, 2008 at 1:54 pm

And Pontoon isn’t nearly as unsavory (and I use the word on purpose) as Love Me. He should stick to Lake Wobegon news on the radio.

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Karey Swan

posted January 1, 2008 at 2:46 pm

I’ve been a Prairie Home Companion fan since it began. There was just a short time period that it wasn’t quite the same and he must have been reigned in, to return to our first love of the program style. I have a few of his books. I might have to read Pontoon.
I’ve been reading your blog for quite awhile now and of all my RSS feeds, yours is one I usually read in full. I read the Divine Embrace and relived it as I read your book reports.

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posted January 1, 2008 at 6:04 pm

Hey Darren… tell us more. I know Keillor’s got a brother who has published evangelically kosher book(s). And the pastor in Anoka is devout or devoted? Of both?

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posted January 1, 2008 at 6:05 pm

… er… make that “or both?”

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posted January 2, 2008 at 6:42 pm

His brother is not in Anoka…It is just where the family is from. If you read Keillor you notice how much “insider” stuff he seems to have. Yes…devout and devoted.

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posted January 2, 2008 at 9:29 pm

Darren – Yes, I’ve read quite a bit… followed Keillor since he appeared on the cover of TIME… many years ago. For awhile there, he was an “evangelical” favorite; with the Gospel Birds and all. But clearly, he wanted to differentiate himself from an adoring religious following, so he went “in your face” on a couple of levels – you know, political left, steamy sex, bad jokes, etc. But he covers the religious left and right as a target for chuckles; from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church to the Brethren to LW Lutheran to Unitarians. Most of it is pretty funny, actually.

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posted January 3, 2008 at 12:23 am

Scott, after reading your blog, i just have to recommend a book to you and your readers for the new year. It is Brown Like Coffee. Kind of wacky but real challenging. I found it at . Read and enjoy!

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Mike Clawson

posted January 3, 2008 at 2:49 am

I love Keillor, though I’ve never read any of his books, just listened to his radio program. The News from Lake Woebegone segments are great. I have all the CD’s.
I guess being from a small town in the upper Midwest myself, I can really relate to the stories he tells. I see a lot of my own hometown in Lake Woebegone.

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posted January 9, 2008 at 3:11 pm

I used to love Prairie Home Companion, and listened to it religiously, if I may say that. I grew up in that same small town, but in the southwest! I read Keillor?s books, too. However, a few years ago, the increasing cynicism and one-sidedness of his work ? both on PHC and in writing ? finally turned me off. There was a time when, in describing political differences and angst, he would have wound up gently and ironically showing the humanity of both sides. No longer. He doesn?t seem to be interested in both partners in the dance; he just seems interested in showing off his steps.
It was really sad, actually. It was like realizing that a good old friend had slowly become someone that you really didn?t enjoy hanging around with, anymore.

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