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Books: Religion as material

Books | At Lake Wobegon, all the books are above average

Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

It's not easy being Lutheran-Catholics hate you because you're too Protestant, Protestants hate you because you're too Catholic, conservatives hate you because you're too liberal, and liberals hate you because you're too conservative. To complicate matters further, as Garrison Keillor shows in his latest novel, there is the distinction between Dark Lutherans and Happy Lutherans.

In Keillor-land, Dark Lutheran is like a fundamentalist with robes, liturgical but full of gloom and prohibitions (someone once cracked that sex was forbidden among Lutherans because it might lead to dancing); a Happy Lutheran is sort of a poor man's Episcopalian, involved in church, but willing to enjoy life (though with beer, not martinis).

John Tollefson, the protagonist in Wobegon Boy, is a small-town refugee who struggles with the latent Dark and Happy Lutherans within him. He heads East and becomes the manager of a public radio station at a small Episcopalian college in New York state. There he meets and falls in love with Alida Freeman, a history professor at Columbia University. The story unfolds in Mr. Keillor's affable, unhurried, improvisational narrative style, with much wit, wisdom, and gentle satire on his favorite subjects: religion, regions, and radio.

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For example, speaking of his great-grandfather, a Lake Wobegon tavern owner, John says: "He owned the Harbor Bar for six years and sold it because the pietists were after him, mainly his wife, Signe. She was one of the Dark Lutherans, of the Haugean persuasion, who were in the majority in town. All of the Norwegians were Lutherans, of course, even the atheists-it was a Lutheran God they did not believe in-but a chasm separated the Hauge Synod, or Dark Lutherans, who believed in the utter depravity of man and separation from worldly things and strict adherence to the literal truth of Scripture, and the Old Synod, or Happy Lutherans, who believed in splashing some water on babies and confirming the little kids and then not worrying about it, just come every Sunday and bring a hot dish."

For all the humorous palaver about Dark and Happy Lutherans, the question remains whether Wobegon Boy is an authentic Christian novel. My judgment is that redemption is not central to the story, as it is, for example, in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. For Garrison Keillor in this novel, Christianity (and the Lutheran confession of faith) is like Lake Wobegon-he doesn't really live there, he just draws on it for material. He's a local colorist, whereas Flannery O'Connor was a regionalist as a Southern Christian writer-she really was From That Place in both the geographic and spiritual senses.

Then there is the question of whether Wobegon Boy is a novel. Mr. Keillor has run Lake Wobegon through a corn filter for this book. Gone are the silly things that A Prairie Home Companion listeners enjoyed-Bertha's Kitty Boutique, Powdermilk Biscuits, etc. He is attempting to write serious humor here, that is, social critique like Mark Twain. Where Twain painted with all America and Europe as his canvas, Keillor is limited to the miniature of small-town Minnesota (a thematic problem Sinclair Lewis also encountered in Main Street).

Plus, there is a lack of dramatic potential inherent in a protagonist whose main problem is boredom. There is no heroic conflict in Wobegon Boy, no profound thought, no overwhelming climax. It's another pleasant collection of Lake Wobegon anecdotes. Taken at face value, it's OK. Mr. Keillor is really a one-trick pony. But the trick is so good that we keep on buying a ticket whenever he comes to town.

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