Those who enjoyed Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio program “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcast for four decades on National Public Radio, will find a host of familiar characters in his latest book, “The Lake Wobegon Virus.” Those who were not followers of the show, or who have not read any of Keillor’s earlier books set in the fictional Minnesota town may well ask themselves, “What was that all about?”
Although described as a novel, Keillor’s book can be more accurately characterized as a collection of vignettes similar to his weekly radio monologue, “The News From Lake Wobegon,” held together by a plot as thin as the line on a walleye fisherman’s reel.
The normally taciturn citizens of Lake Wobegon have been victimized by an affliction that causes them to lose their northern European inhibitions and make outrageous, uncharacteristic public statements. Pastor Liz, of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church, launched into a one-hour ramble from the pulpit in which she describes being stuck on an airline toilet seat. Clint Bunsen, a lifelong churchgoer stood up at Men’s Fellowship and denounced God and religion in general. And others.
Lenny, a Lake Wobegon native who left many years earlier to become an epidemiologist, is summoned to investigate these phenomena. She discovers that a virus in unpasteurized cheese produced by one of the county’s Norwegian bachelor farmers is the culprit. The farmer, Hilmar Bakken, sells his acreage to an entrepreneur who intends to build a one-mile oval track for racing 18-wheelers, and moves to Seattle, ending the threat.
Keillor does not need to spend much time developing characterization. His followers are well acquainted with most of these people and what to expect from them. He does sprinkle in a handful of new peripheral characters and paints them with a witty and discerning brush.
“Virus” has the feel of a book written by an author with a lot of time on his hands (he has been isolated in his New York apartment since March) and a ream of blank paper needing to be filled.
Keillor, who has always described himself as a writer and not a radio personality, has a prodigious lifetime output, in a style that has remained consistent over the years. He has the ability to write long, long sentences without letting them spin out of control. This is not great literature, but will provide several hours of amusing reading for those who enjoy laconic, laid-back storytelling with splashes of insight into the human condition.
Keillor’s memoir “That Time of Year,” three years in the writing, was published in mid-November.