Real America, with Abe Sauer: Garrison Keillor Will Die

by Abe Sauer

red shoes

Garrison Keillor will die. That’s an honest-to-God truth. And while that blunt statement on the surface is just factual, what it represents for many, including myself, is difficult to comprehend or even contemplate: that Garrison Keillor will die.

Keillor still helms Prairie Home Companion each week and shills his latest book, amongst other projects and appearances. It’s an incredible schedule for a man whose stroke earlier this year was just the latest bout with a earthly vessel resolved to doing him in. And while he seems his normal, measured self, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that this radio season is his last.

Based in Minnesota and heard by nearly four million listeners each week, according to American Public Media, Prairie Home Companion first aired in 1974 to an audience of 12. A variety show in the mold of old regional broadcasts, there is really not anything like it left on radio. Its content maintains a regional flair that has been lost; while America’s talent for global homogenization is both celebrated and bemoaned, its even greater ability to do so inside its own borders makes American sameness near-complete. Americans have even forgotten to lament that everywhere seems like everywhere else. As Keillor once said, “People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn’t mean much now, except for the climate. The question, ‘Where are you from?’ doesn’t lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know.”

Prairie Home Companion is just as local as Keillor, which is why, after he “resumed the life of a shy person,” the New York-based version of the show, “American Radio Company of the Air,” was unsuccessful. In fact, part of what makes the show so appealing is that it doesn’t care about appealing to a wider audience.

ketchup council

Prairie Home Companion is also often subversive in a way many “liberal” shows are not. It lampoons both politics and religion, without grossly insulting personal affiliations to either. It’s often characterized as a dumb show for hicks by those who have never heard an installment of The Professional Organization of English Majors, a running gag that makes The Daily Show look like it works in finger paints. And, it is probably the only Democratic-leaning show for white people where the word “faith” isn’t used as a punch-line or a pander. As an alternative to how most shows work around God because it’s “difficult,” Prairie Home works God in while very much acknowledging that it is “difficult.”

For those that profess to be offended by the bulk of his work-that seems, to me, irrational and misplaced. I understand the outrage over his statements about gay marriage (he apologized, but it was still, even tongue-in-cheek, an unwise essay). Other than that, he is largely a fiction writer, variety show host and (worsening) singer. Not your cup of tea? Well, okay.

ponton boat

I am almost exactly as old as A Prairie Home Companion. While there is no meaning in this bit of trivia, I have, over the years chosen to find some. Along with others who grew up in Wisconsin or Minnesota or Iowa and the Dakotas, the show was Saturday noise. Gospel and Keillor’s voice sound-racking the evening… even when we weren’t listening all that close. But often we were listening that close. I was. And it helped that I grew up in a place just as small and sincere as Lake Wobegon.

Over the last decade I lived and traveled a great deal, spending most of my youth in Beijing and Burma, New York and Narita, Haiti and Hungary, some places for weeks, some for years. And the one constant was Garrison’s voice. My expat friends got excited over packages of VHS recordings of Friends and ER; my secret glee was bootleg Prairie Home Companion recordings from my brother.

Every Keillor fan has his or her favorite monologue. I can recite more than a dozen, verbatim (especially the Book of Guys story “God of Canton,” the only tape to survive a tragic Beijing apartment flood). But if I had to (at this moment) make just three recommendations, I would select “Hog Slaughter” and “The Royal Family” from the Fall section and “Storm Home” from the Winter section of the four-seasoned News from Lake Wobegon collection. The first two for their sense of realism, loss, hope and Garrison’s voice and the latter for its calm seasonal charm and childishness. (But it kills me to pick.)

Listening to Garrison’s voice is what lulled me to sleep on more nights than I can remember. It continues to. It reminded me, and still does, that home was still an actual place to which I could go back, even if the years had faded the memories too pale to any longer proffer proper nostalgia. Certainly Keillor’s works will survive him. And yes, a lot of that work is getting to be a little repetitive, even for hard-core fans. But that voice, we will never have again.

rhubarb pie

To truly be a fan of Garrison is to be a fan of sadness, sweet sadness, and loss. But it is also to be a fan of humanity. Garrison’s youths are naïve; their perspectives are not seas but puddles, in which they are rudderless anyway. Adults are sinners but trying. Places are better in memory and imagination than in reality. And people are both more fragile and more robust than expected. To be familiar with Garrison is also to know of death. Death is an authentic Midwest small-town going-on. The weather is first. But death is second. To spend time with the kind of elderly that inhabit the Wobegon stories is to spend time hearing about death. Did you hear who died? He died too early. How did he die? Who drove from far away to the service? What did they serve? Hushed voices speak the details of the local dead as if not to offend them.

Anyone who listens regularly to Prairie Home, and especially those familiar with Keillor’s non-radio works, (such as “The Book of Guys”), know the author is well aware of everything’s impermanence, especially his own. The Altman film of Prairie Home Companion, written by Keillor, is centered on mortality. One exchange has Keillor looking into the camera and saying, “I will die.” In July’s PBS documentary The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes, Keillor says, “You die, there’s a sort of decent grief, a few people really do suffer from your absence but the impact on the greater world is not that big. You do not leave a big hole. They dig a hole and they put you in it.”

And it is exactly this humor with a shadow, these pithy takes on death (especially his own), that leave us chuckling at the abstract rather than quietly pondering the sincere. He will die. (As will we all.) And yet, just how will we react? I’m not sure.

living flag

I have seen three shows live. Prairie Home Companion is finishing its annual December run at New York’s Town Hall Theatre this weekend (perhaps there are Craigslist tickets?). But starting in January 2010, the show will be traveling to a range of venues from San Francisco to Tucson to Detroit, Seattle, Newark, Cuyahoga Falls, Highland Park and Nashville, amongst others. I simply cannot recommend the experience enough, especially in consideration that the opportunity, obviously, becomes ever more limited.

Abe Sauer is a fan.