Opinion: Keeping up with Keillor

I have been a fan of Garrison Keillor’s work since I first listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio back in the day. Later, when his first book, Lake Woebegon Days, (1985) came out, I discovered another side to his talents. Last November I learned that he had published three new books since the beginning of the pandemic. I set about ordering and then reading Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 (2021). After that, I read his autobiography That Time of the Year (2020). And just a few nights ago, I stayed up past my bedtime to finish the last two chapters of his latest novel, Boom Town (2022).

(You know how it goes: You hear the clock chime and you flip to the back of the book and there are only two chapters left and it’s really not that late and the story lines are are coming together and you think, “You know, I really don’t have to get up so early tomorrow.”)

Boom Town is the latest installment in the long-running saga of the townspeople and the country folk of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota. In this one, Millennials are moving to town and starting new enterprises as the older, familiar establishments slowly fade away, passing the entrepreneurial torch to a younger generation. Many of the characters who have peopled the Lake Woebegon stories since the beginning also appear in this one. Throughout the book there is a sense of sadness of the passing of the old ways, but also a sort of calm recognition that it is time for the old to leave

In That Time of Year, Keillor relates how he was in his thirties in 1974 when he started telling stories on the radio. “I made the old people … 75 and they stayed 75 for forty years—their grandchildren aged, old people didn’t—I was fond of them and didn’t want them to die.”

I think I understand. This is how I tend remember the “old people’ in my life: the grandparents, the aunts and uncles, the family friends and neighbors. In my mind’s eye they will be always people of a certain age. To me, entering into his books feel a lot like arriving at a family reunion. I feel as if I am greeting old friends, and young ones, too.

And now I am of certain age, and I am reading Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80. As the title might suggest, this book is mostly his observations of getting older in a world that is changing from the world he knew for nearly 80 years. He applauds some of the changes and he is dubious of others. Like many people who have lived a long time, he believes he has learned some things about life. Keillor offers these up to the reader in Chapter 2: “Rules of the Game.”

“Less is more. Appreciate what you have.” “Remember where you came from.” “Don’t fight with young people, even if you are right, which you probably are.” “Get out of the way. You’re old and slow. Don’t be an obstacle.” “Walk carefully, Look where you are going. Stabilize yourself.” “Be grateful for each and every disaster.” And, finally, “Pay no heed to someone else’s rules, especially if he has numbered them.” Of course, some of the rules will be more applicable and meaningful than others depending on the person.

It seems to me that to make such observations on how to live a serene and lighthearted life in old age, you must have lived a long, engaged life. And you must honestly face it before you can develop and understand these truths.

I am glad to have caught up with these latest writings from Garrison Keillor. He is funny and serious and sometimes even profound. I am also impressed with his work habits. If nothing else, he is certainly prolific.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to [email protected].