Monday, January 12, 2009

Garrison Keillor's "Liberty": a woeful Wobegon novel

If, like me, you laughed your way through Garrison Keillor's Pontoon (2007), you might be thinking about grabbing Liberty (2008) off the new-books shelves just as soon as I return it to Wheaton Public Library. Let me save you some time.

The first-sentence test is instructive. Pontoon begins thus: "Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that."

By contrast, Liberty's first sentence is a flatulent, overblown description that runs on to page 2 before sliding to a halt. At least it's cheerful--unlike Clint Bunsen, the book's protagonist.

Sure, the book has plenty of funny moments. But mostly it's the story of a 60-year-old man's late-life-transition crisis, which involves a lot of grumbling and a good deal more, um, explicit writing than Keillor usually indulges in. I appreciate a comment left on the web site goodreads: "If I were married to Garrison Keillor, I'd be a wee trifle concerned by his sudden fascination with adultery."

By the end of the book, small-town values reassert themselves (I think), but not too convincingly. Irene Bunsen's sudden gutsiness fails, not only because it's out of character, but also because she stops short of sending Clint to the Promised Land. As a 60-year-old woman, I was cheering her on.

Especially when girl-toy Angelica sententiously proclaims, "I love your husband. I don't need to own him, I believe that everything we do for love enlarges us and makes us free."

And Irene, who is holding Clint at gunpoint, cuts in and asks him to choose: "Butt, foot, or ear?"

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