Novel by America's tallest radio comedian. Tender, hilarious reminiscences of life in mythical Lake Wobegon

Lake Wobegon Days, by Garrison Keillor. New York: Viking. 337 pp. $17.95. ``I was ten and I liked to read from the newspaper into a cardboard tube, cupping a hand behind my ear to hear if I had . . . deep bass tones.''

And those of us who are fans of Minnesota Public Radio's ``Prairie Home Companion'' are very glad that this first novel's narrator, ``a skinny kid with wire-rim glasses,'' whose name happens to be the same as the author's, took an early interest in radio and grew up, literally, to become ``America's tallest radio comedian,'' the one who tells us every Saturday evening the weekly news from Lake Wobegon, ``the little town that time forgot.''

Now both fans and those unfamiliar with this Minnesota town (which isn't on the map, due to surveyors' errors, Mr. Keillor tells us) can all read about the exciting history and stalwart inhabitants of mythical Lake Wobegon.

We learn that it was ``first named `New Albion' by New Englanders, who thought it would become the Boston of the West, taking its ultimate name from an Indian phrase that means either `Here we are!' or `We sat all day in the rain waiting for [you].' '' During its New Albion period, it was the site of New Albion College, which closed rather rapidly thanks to blizzards and bears.

After the New Englanders came the Norwegians and Germans, the ancestors of the citizens we meet on the radio on Saturdays.

Having enlightened us about Lake Wobegon's beginnings, Keillor proceeds to such subjects as the town's traditions, which include the Living Flag (inspired by the dry-goods store's overstock of red, white, and blue baseball caps) and the Sons of Knute Ice Melt contest (when ``they tow Mr. Berge's maroon 1949 Ford onto the lake, park it forty yards offshore with a long chain around the rear axle, and wait for spring'').

Mention must be made, too, of the Chatterbox Caf'e's Commercial Hot Beef Sandwich and Lake Wobegon's basic dish, tuna casserole with cream of mushroom soup.

Garrison Keillor recalls attending the same school as his father and grandfather, a school so small ``you don't get to specialize: one day Coach Magendanz is trying to bring out the animal in you, and then you are Ernest in `The Importance of Being,' and then you are defending the negative in the question of capital punishment, and the next day you're attempting sixteenth-century polyphony.''

``Lake Wobegon Days'' is a love poem to small towns from that grown-up skinny kid, whose reminiscences are as tender as they are hilarious, complete with a paean to porches.

But life in a small town can get pretty dull, he notes, so even a thunderstorm can become a major event. When I was midway through this book, a thunderstorm hurtled upon our New Hampshire village -- slash, bang! Our house turned red. My husband said, ``That was close! '' We looked out and saw smoke. Lightning had hit two trees in our yard and set fire to some bales of mulch hay at their feet. As the volunteer fire department and all the neighbors rushed enthusiastically to the rescue, I thou ght how much Garrison Keillor would enjoy the scene.

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