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Book review: <i>Love Me</i> by Garrison Keillor


the cover of the book

If this was... Wine, it would be that Cab Merlot I so freakin' elegantly analogise in paragraph three.

Cover

A nice burgundy backdrop under a white, Frasier-esque skyline graphic and some elegant text. Much nicer than the hardcover copy in the library, which was an awful red/black/white newsprint collage.

Plot

Our hero lives in a quiet Minnesotan town. There he finishes university, marries his sweetheart, and decides to become a writer. He writes a stolid, salubrious novel about the mopey Scandinvians who settled the state long ago, then realises that he doesn't want to read it any more than anybody else does. So he writes a short, salacious crime thriller. It's a massive success. He’s always dreamt of the bright lights and big city, now he's allowed to have them. The New Yorker magazine agrees to put him on staff, and his salary affords a fine apartment with a view of Central Park. But his wife doesn't want to leave Minnesota. She likes her work, helping the strung-out, homeless, and mentally unhinged at the local drop-in centre. So our man puts his marriage in storage and heads to New York, half spoken for, half famous, and half prepared for the high life.

The good

If you like Keillor's non-fiction prose, you're in for a treat (you can check out his opinion column - and wealth of old "Mr. Blue" advice columns - at Salon.com). His literary style is, cliched as it might sound, like a great red wine - there's the solid, oaky background of morality, good sense and stoicism, over which play a blend of lighter flavours - palette-teasing humour, fruity poetic flourishes, and (as with the hero's wife), the acid bite of reality, which Keillor wisely uses to burn through the complacent tendencies of both his prose and his main character.

When the combination of flavours (sorry, I'll stop now) is working, it works very well indeed. Keillor manages the impressive feat of sounding old-fashioned and contemporary, and, better yet, he seems aware of this and quite capable of using it to effect. One of his favourite effects is to lull us into a smugness of familiarity or self-righteousness, then hit us with a slapful of reality, craziness, surrealism, or all three.

Love Me is funny, too, sometimes via face-slap, but often via truth. The best examples of this come from the hero's only writing success after his first novel - the 'Mr. Blue' advice columns. Keillor actually wrote this column for years, was fantastic at it, and puts it to sublime (if sporadic) recurring effect in Love Me. Sometimes it works within the plot as a Palahniuk-esque echo to the hero's thoughts, sometimes it's like a parallel narrative with similar themes, and sometimes it comes direct from the 4-AM fears and pains that run beneath human affairs (and which cleverly pull against Keillor's natural tilt toward Norman Rockwell-ism). Of course it's also (and no less importantly) a running joke about how ridiculously our own hearts are capable of making us act. I would read a book solely composed of these columns, quite frankly, and though I'm trying to be careful with the generalisations, I think women will enjoy them too. Keillor (perhaps naturally, perhaps through the experience of writing the column) is unusually generous and equitable when it comes to matters of gender. While the blurb of Love Me may make it sound like we're in for a wild ride at the hands of a literary rebel whose wife never understood him, in fact his wife understands him far better than he does and is so far evolved by comparison that she is prepared to let him act like an idiot until he's gotten it out of his system. She understands him, but doesn't take any shit from him either, and Keillor never allows us to feel superior to her just because she's happy with a life lived for good reasons, on a manageable scale, which is apparently free from glamour (whatever the fuck that might be).

Perhaps, in the end, it's a good thing Keillor, like his hero, took so long to write this book. There's half a man's life in here - lust, energy, yearning, achievement, success, admiration, sex, love, self-realisation, failure, denial, and acceptance. Keillor is at his most believable when he's at his most heartfelt, and his sense of small human details and big biblical themes - particularly those of human frailty within the majesty of creation - means he can thus be believable about everything from autumn trees and the view from a penthouse to the inherent madness of authors.

The bad

Sadly, it also means he's capable of losing his grip on the reader during the medium-sized stuff, often at unexpected times - smack in the middle of the world's most exciting city, for instance, or when casually dismissing supporting characters more as devices than as human beings.

Another example is the book's chronological looseness. I can handle the fact that Love Me was written this millennium yet Keillor's style never loses the faint dusty whiff of a 1950s Reader's Digest. It's a little harder to forgive having absolutely no idea how long the middle third of the book takes. The hero seems to first rent his apartment during the Reagan years, but twenty pages later he's talking about email. I don't mind if he lives there for a decade, but the idea is that, while working for the New Yorker, he doesn't write a thing. In which case, a decade starts to sound a bit outlandish, if not actually distractingly erroneous. Finding yourself trying to work out how a character can afford their own rent is not a good sign in a sitcom, let alone a novel.

To be honest, much as I identify wholeheartedly with the entire McInnerney/Fitzgerald yearning for them big shiny buildings, I found the New York chapters the weakest. What happens within is that the thematic balance is lost, tipping the style into fantasy. There are always moments of relief, though, and the last quarter is a fine thing indeed; a happy, loving relaxation into retirement after the hunger of youth and a decade of middle-aged insanity.

Love Me is a good book. It's wise without being world-weary, which is pretty impressive in itself, and Keillor is an enviably self-aware writer. Even the bits I didn't like certainly weren't accidents. I think that you'd need to appreciate Keillor's atmosphere and prose to get into this, BUT, if you do, I feel safe saying it'll appeal equally if you're male, female, old or young. Check it out, I say. At the very least, you won't end up feeling worse; there's a constant, electric-blanket warmth spread out under the whole thing, and that's Keillor being a nice guy.

What I learnt

Quite a lot about prestigious literary journal the New Yorker. Given that this magazine constituted by far the most unreal aspect of the book, however, I suspect that Keillor was either taking the piss, or else it's a much, much stranger place of employment than its eminently civilized reputation would suggest.

In short

Title: Love Me
Author: Garrison Keillor
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571217236
Year published: 2005
Pages: 272
Genre(s): Contemporary Literature, Humour
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