Autobiography is typically characterized as a chronological account of the author’s life, usually told in first person. Memoir, on the other hand, is described as a recollection, often seen through an introspective and interpretive lens, of an episode or era in the life of the writer.
Garrison Keillor’s latest book, “That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life,” does not fall neatly into either of these categories. It is a chronological account of Keillor’s life, complete with ancestral histories of both of his parents’ families, his childhood and teen years, his college years, his early career failures and successes and his growth as an author and radio personality.
Yet the narrative loops back again and again, retelling old episodes in slightly different ways and with different emphases. It is not merely a recitation of historical facts; there is a heavy helping of reflection and self-examination.
Those who have read Keillor’s work over the years (his first publication was a short story in “The New Yorker” in 1970) will have seen or heard many of these stories before; a number of them have been incorporated into his monologue, “The News From Lake Woebegon,” a regular feature of his live variety show that aired weekly for more than 40 years on National Public Radio.
Keillor acknowledges that he has succeeded in his career, but he laments that he has been less so in his personal life. He has described himself as “a high-functioning individual on the autistic spectrum,” a person who does not care to make eye contact and who prefers solitude to the company of others. He is candid about his faults that led to the failure of his first marriage.
In 2017, Keillor’s longtime relationship with public radio was severed after a female freelance writer for his radio program accused him of inappropriate behavior. In his few public comments at the time he stated that the episode was a misunderstanding and that it had been personally and privately resolved until lawyers got their hands on it.
At the time he said he would address the issue when he published his memoir, and in “That Time of Year,” he does so in a 6-page chapter toward the end of the book. His bitterness at the way the episode was handled in a “cool, impersonal corporate tone” colors the chapter until the final paragraphs where he describes how his anger was washed away in a brief, intensely spiritual experience.
Admirers of Keillor and his work will enjoy this book, a coda to a long literary and performance career. If there are any regrets about the work it might be a lack of description of his development as a writer. After all, whose first published story appears in “The New Yorker?”