December 13, 2007

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Pontoon, by Garrison Keillor (2007, Viking, 248 pages)
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons news@hippopress.com

A great opening sentence attracted me to Garrison Keillor’s latest novel, another Lake Wobegon story:

“Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.”

Despite some shortcomings, the book mostly lives up to the promises of that clever-yet-grounded, sentimental-yet-humorous opening.

The plot has 60-something Barbara discovering that her suddenly deceased 82-year-old mother was living a secret racy life on the side and left instructions that she be cremated and her ashes placed in a bowling ball to be dropped into Lake Wobegon. Around page 70 we get to the meanwhile, which is that 20-something Debbie Detmer, who struck it rich as a sort of veterinarian to the stars, has returned to Lake Wobegon to marry her arrogant airheaded boyfriend in a zany airheaded ceremony involving a parachuting Elvis impersonator. And much later we find out that a troupe of Danish priests is touring the area and must be entertained. As you might imagine, these three universes are going to collide. They will ultimately collide in the lake.

The plot is classic Keillor, always pointing up the dangers of going too far in any one direction, either the let-it-hang-out or the buttoned-up. It’s zany but it touches deep truths about people.

Now for the writing style. Keillor has this wonderful way of telling someone’s whole life story in one long run-on paragraph, clauses strung together with a lot of “and”s. Unfortunately he never misses an opportunity to apply this technique. He’s so good at giving backstory, at implicitly reminding us that everyone has a story, that this is what he does, left and right. So-and-so’s brother-in-law stops in, and, because it’s colorful and interesting and gives dimension, here’s a two-page run-on about the brother-in-law’s life history, how he ran off to Des Moines and married a stripper and took a job hauling corn cobs and always wanted to be an actor. And before we know it we’re so far out on this tangent that we can’t see where we came from.

Furthermore, Garrison Keillor has a wonderful, unique voice — but he makes his characters also speak in that same voice. His voice. Which makes it very hard to tell them apart (character from character, and characters from Keillor). Impossible, really, from the dialogue alone. Everyone is Garrison Keillor in different clothes. And this is a book, so we can’t see the clothes. I wish he’d let his characters — whose backstories are not all necessary, thanks, impressive though they are — have their own, different, voices.

Nonetheless I was charmed by Pontoon, by that voice and by the characters’ stories.

It’s a warm, cozy-ish yet funny tale whose characters I kept wanting to revisit; it sent me back to Lake Wobegon Days for another dose. A perfect holiday gift for the Keillor fan or the curl-up-with-a-story type on your list. A-Lisa Parsons