Garrison Keillor's "Pontoon Boat," a short story in his new book, "The Keillor Reader," is a mash note to a fictional Minnesota hometown called Lake Wobegon, a place at which the host of "A Prairie Home Companion" has directed his homespun wit and nostalgia for 40 years. This yarn, which he says is an audience favorite on the lecture circuit, involves a lakeside memorial that turns hairy when Lutheran pastors arrive on a pontoon boat, a hot air balloon flies overhead, and the dead woman's grandson plans a parasailing tribute over the water. What comes next is slapstick anarchy: The big balloon catches fire, the grandson loses his shorts after getting tangled in the balloon and the pastors sink with the pontoon.
"The Lutherans achieved total immersion," Keillor says of the story in an emailed interview. "[Lake Wobegon] is often not what I would call idyllic, but it is a fairly cheerful place, and that I like, the resolve of people to not brood too much over the past and to avoid burdening the young. It continues to be an exporter of people, most of whom look back at the town with nostalgic longing. They've forgotten how cold it gets and how mean people can be."
If his 22nd book of essays, short stories and poetry is punctuated with familiar nostalgic longing, Keillor does not share its wistfulness. The amiable humorist, now 71, has told all these stories on his popular radio broadcast, but he will mark 40 years of "A Prairie Home Companion" this summer by doing "nothing in particular." "The Keillor Reader," which he'll discuss Wednesday at Coral Gables Congregational Church, also isn't any kind of milestone.
"Retirement? Me? I'm having too good a time. Some of us hit our prime very late," Keillor says. "The show was started on a wild impulse and never intended to stick around more than a year or two, but here it is, mainly because I resisted the urge to quit. I quit once, in 1987, and was miserable, so I've decided not to be miserable again."
Found in "Pontoon Boat" and other stories is an overriding theme of cheerfulness against life's adversities. One tale, "Chickens," plumbs Keillor's own childhood, when his family relocated from a farm to New York's Brooklyn Park suburb. They continued to secretly butcher chickens in the back yard. The poem "What a Luxury," about the distinct joys of male urination, suggests Keillor is keen to channel his inner teenager.
"I've only just begun to try to figure out my childhood. It never was that interesting to me and now it is, perhaps because my mother died the year before last," he says. "It was a pleasant childhood, due in large part to my parents' cheerful view of life. They had no money but they cherished each other and there was very little anger in them. And it was the '50s, and we kids were wonderfully naive.
Garrison Keillor will discuss "The Keillor Reader" 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 14, at Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 De Soto Blvd. Book purchase ($27.95) grants buyers two admission tickets. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.