Authors: Garrison Keillor
LAKE WOBEGON DAYS
Garrison Keillor was born in Anoka, Minnesota, and is the host and writer of
A Prairie Home Companion.
He is the author of nine books, all published by Penguin, including
Lake Wobegon Summer 1956.
A teacher at the University of Minnesota and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he lives in St. Paul with his wife and daughter.
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)
Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124,
Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)
Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,
New Delhi – 110 017, India
Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank,
Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin Inc. 1985
Published in Penguin Books 1986
Copyright © Garrison Keillor, 1985
All rights reserved
Portions of this book appeared originally in
The Atlantic Monthly.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Lake Wobegon days.
[PS3561.E3755L3 1986b] 813’.54 86-798
Printed in the United States of America
Set in Janson Alternate
Illustrations by Mike Lynch
Courtesy of Groveland Gallery
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
In the spring of 1974, I got $6000 from the
for writing a piece about the Grand Ole Opry, the most money I had ever seen, and so my wife and small son and I left home in St. Paul and got on the Empire Builder and headed for San Francisco to visit our friends, not knowing that this windfall would be most of my earnings for the year. I had never been west beyond Idaho, where I went to Bible conferences in my youth. We got a Pullman compartment and left Minneapolis late at night, awoke west of Fargo, watched the prairie roll by as we ate a good breakfast and lunch, and as the train headed into the northern Rockies, I sat in the bar car and took out a couple of stories from my briefcase and worked on them, a successful American author who provided good things for his family. In Sand Point, Idaho, late the second night, close to where the Bible conferences took place, we derailed coming through a freight yard. The train had slowed to a crawl so none of us were hurt—our Pullman car simply screeched and swayed and bumped along the ties a little way—and we packed our suitcase and climbed out. We stood around a long time in the dark
and got on an old bus that smelled of engine fumes, and headed for Portland, where we would catch the southbound Coast Starlight for San Francisco. My wife dozed next to me, the little boy lay across our laps and slept, and I sat and thought about the extravagance of this trip, the foolishness—one stroke of good luck, the Opry story, and I was blowing a big wad of the proceeds on what?
, which was now derailed. The motive was good, to try to put a little life and color into a disappearing marriage, but I thought about the expense as we chugged across Washington, and the magnificence of the Columbia valley was lost on me, and reaching Portland at last, I made up my mind to finish up the new stories right away and sell both of them to the
and cut my losses. An hour later, I lost them both in the Portland train station.
I took my son to the men’s room and set the briefcase down while we peed and washed our hands, and then we went to the cafeteria for breakfast. A few bites into the scrambled eggs I remembered the briefcase, went to get it and it was gone. We had an hour before the southbound arrived. We spent it looking in every trash basket in the station, outside the station, and for several blocks around. I was sure that the thief, finding nothing but manuscripts in the briefcase, would chuck it, and I kept telling him to, but he didn’t chuck it where I could see it, and then our time was up and we climbed on the train. I felt so bad I didn’t want to look out the window. I looked straight at the wall of our compartment, and as we rode south the two lost stories seemed funnier and funnier to me, the best work I had ever done in my life; I wept for them, and my misery somehow erased them from mind so that when I got out a pad of paper a couple hundred miles later, I couldn’t re-create even a faint outline.
To make me feel better, we trooped up to the dining car and ordered steaks all around and Manhattans for the grownups, which only made me worry about extravagance again, which now I was even less in a position to afford. By the time we got to San Francisco, the two stories loomed as two lost landmarks of American comic prose, a loss to the entire nation, and I was ready to go home.
Our California friends were sympathetic and encouraging, and so were my friends in Minnesota when we got home two weeks later. People always are encouraging about a terrible loss, so that sometimes
the loser would like to strangle them. People tell you about other writers who lost stories, Hemingway, Carlyle, great men who triumphed over misfortune—“You’ll go on and write something even better,” they say, not knowing how good those stories were. I still have the two three-by-five file cards on which, bumping along on the train, I wrote everything I could remember about the stories: one is entitled “Lucky Man” and the notes describe a man who feels fortunate despite terrible things that happen to him. Even now, looking at it, I faintly recall what a fine work it was. The other is entitled “Lake Wobegon Memoir,” and the notes are sparse: “Clarence and Arlene Bunsen,” “the runaway car,” “Wednesday night prayer meeting,” and “Legion club dance” are the extent of it. The lost story shone so brilliantly in dim memory that every new attempt at it looked pale and impoverished before I got to the first sentence.
I started a radio show in July, “A Prairie Home Companion,” a live musical-variety show like the Opry. I struggled on as a writer, started a novel that stumbled along for a thousand pages and then tipped over dead. My wife and I split up in 1976. Somehow the radio show kept going, perhaps because I had no illusion that I was good at it, and I brought in Lake Wobegon as the home of a weekly monologue, hoping that one Saturday night, standing on stage, I would look into the lights and my lost story would come down the beam and land in my head. Eleven years later, I am still waiting for it.
It has been a good run and I’m a very lucky man, I think. One pretty good idea for gainful employment eleven years ago is still my livelihood, thanks to my longtime colleagues, Margaret Moos, William H. Kling, Lynne Cruise, and Richard (“Butch”) Thompson, all patrons of the lost cause of live radio, and other friends in and out of the business who gave me so much good advice. I am indebted to Kathryn Court, the editor of this book, and to my agent, Ellen Levine, and to a parade of others going back to my teachers George Hage, John Rogers, Deloyd Hochstetter, Fern Moehlenbrock, and Estelle Shaver. I’m grateful to them. All the same, I wish I hadn’t lost that story in the Portland lavatory, and I am still waiting for it to come back. I believe it was a story given to me as in a dream, that if found and people heard it they might discover something they too were looking for all these years, and I foolishly forgot it while washing my hands and don’t
know what to do to get it back. Sometimes, standing in the wings, I feel that story brush against my face and think I’ll remember it—maybe if I closed my eyes it would land on my shoulder like one of the Performing Gospel Birds. This book, while not nearly so fine, will have to suffice until it returns.
Dogs don’t lie, and why should I?
Strangers come, they growl and bark.
They know their loved ones in the dark.
Now let me, by night or day,
Be just as full of truth as they.