Review

Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon

by Garrison Keillor

“If there were no Lake Wobegon and all those loopy
Lutherans living there to write about, someone would have had to
invent it.” Huh???

 

Yes, that’s right. There are folks out there --- my quoted
dear friend among them --- so captivated by Garrison
Keillor’s three decades of enchanting tales from this little
village in Norwegian Middle America that they believe it really
exists. Honestly, they do! What higher compliment could an author
possibly wish for?

 

And PONTOON, Keillor’s latest Lake Wobegon opus, makes
matters of credibility even more challenging; the entire dust
jacket displays all those places fans have visited over the years
through his Prairie Home Companion radio readings. We begin, in
fact, by reading a closed book…

 

There’s the Sons of Knute Temple anchoring the eastern end of
Second Avenue along the lakeshore; directly south lies the
Farmer’s Union Grain Elevator; directly across from that sits
the imposing expanse of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility
Catholic Church, flanked by school and rectory. You have to look
over on the back cover to find the more diffident Lutheran church
planted near the western end of Main Street. And in between are all
the places that figure so large in the lives of Lake
Wobegonians.

 

After a good 10 minutes spent poring over the delightful dust cover
map, I finally got into the story and didn’t emerge again
until the very end. That’s a typical Garrison Keillor
experience. While it’s happening, you live entirely within
this so-real little world of his that conjures up all the values,
fears, foibles, eccentricities and just plain old-fashioned
foolishness many of us long for in a world where the phrase
“simple pleasures” has become an oxymoron.

 

Lake Wobegon has always been one of those places whose wildest
characters unabashedly stand out and whose traditions are often
surprisingly remolded around family milestones such as weddings,
funerals, birthdays, anniversaries and the like. In PONTOON
the fast-paced, aggressive, high-tech urban world comes face to
face with the equally intense but much more endearing complexities
of a small community that simply cannot be intimidated by outside
forces.

 

It all starts with the quite ordinary fact of an old lady dying
quietly in her sleep while reading a book. But feisty and with-it
Evelyn has left behind a major bombshell --- a will that specifies
cremation (scandalous!) followed by the aerial dropping of her
ashes into Lake Wobegon, encased in a hollowed-out emerald green
bowling ball. Her correspondence files turn out to reveal even more
surprising secrets, but I won’t spoil the fun by telling
any.

 

Being the linear thinkers they are, however, the good (and
not-so-good) Lutherans of the town quickly move past their initial
shock. Various factions go about preparing their own
“appropriate” goodbyes to Evelyn, amid the big and
small crises of their own lives. Among them are her depressed
alcoholic daughter and morally indecisive grandson, who dutifully
work out the logistics of actually making the aerial bombardment a
reality.

 

In the meantime, a prodigal daughter-made-good returns home with
her boorish partner to stage a waterborne “commitment”
ceremony aboard a local resident’s pontoon boat (hence the
title), but finds herself sucked back into bittersweet memories and
realities that mess up her urbanized plans for life. Boor leaves in
a snit, creating even more interesting ripples in the plot.

 

The inimitable delight, as with any Keillor tale, is in the meshing
and entangling of details that produce bizarre results and
memorable, even cataclysmic, events. And they aren’t just of
the slapstick genre that conjures up visions of chaos and
confusion. In PONTOON, Keillor also delves more deeply into the
psyche of characters whose inner and outer lives run on strangely
dissonant parallel courses --- Evelyn’s more surprisingly
than all the rest put together.

 

Suffice it to say that Garrison Keillor has practically reinvented
the truism that appearances are deceiving. In his hands, the art of
deception is made miraculous, even transcendent. And somehow,
against all odds, everything works out for the best. Funny, yet
poignant in all the right places, PONTOON can’t come
more highly recommended.



















Reviewed by Pauline Finch (paulinefinch@rogers.com) on January 18, 2011

Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon
by Garrison Keillor

  • Publication Date: August 26, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143114107
  • ISBN-13: 9780143114109