So much to tell

Garrison Keillor writes about the summer he got a typewriter and learned the power of stories

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Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all Garrison Keillor's books are above average. The sonorous host of "A Prairie Home Companion" has been chronicling the lives of small-town Minnesotans for more than 25 years. We love these strange characters because Keillor does, and we laugh at them because they're kindly wrapped versions of our own peculiarities.

His latest novel is about a precocious 14-year-old boy named Gary. The year is 1956, and Gary's family is a member of the "Sanctified Brethren, the Chosen Remnant of Saints Gathered to the Lord's Name and Faithful to the literal meaning of His Word, the True Church in Apostate Times, the Faithful Bride Awaiting the Lord's Imminent Return In Triumph in the Skies."

But Gary isn't looking up into the sky. He's more interested in terrestrial wonders like bodily noises, baseball, and sex. When he's finished cutting the lawn, he sits with his parents on the porch, a Norman Rockwell cliché. His mother listens to the radio. ("We do not own a television, because it does not glorify Christ.") His father grouses about a hole in the screen door. And Gary lies on the white wicker swing, reading "Foxx's Book of Martyrs" with a copy of "High School Orgies" tucked inside.

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To a nerdy kid who looks like "a tree toad," these sex stories sound like science fiction. To members of the Sanctified Brethren and their modern-day ilk (you know who you are), these libidinous narratives will be enough to cancel next year's pledge to public radio.

Gary knows that Jesus and his grandfather, observing from heaven, think he's stoking the fires of damnation, but that can't cool his passions. In fact, some of the funniest scenes in the book are Gary's own fantasies, a weird mixture of uninformed erotica and literary pretension, i.e. "Her breasts are like two friendly otters."

On the cusp of adulthood, Gary is eager to get on with it, to move away from his chronically repressed family, write for The New Yorker, hang out with James Thurber, and reminisce about Paris.

But in the meantime, his attention is focused on cousin Kate, the only other relative determined not to die of boredom. She shocks her family for sport, an easy sport, considering her family. Among the most disturbing things Kate does is date Roger Guppy, pitcher on the local baseball team.

Banking on Gary's interest in Kate, her father gives him a typewriter and gets him a sportswriting job on the Lake Wobegon Herald Star ($3.50 week, including 10 sheets of paper). He's charged with pumping up the team in print, and keeping an eye on his cousin.

Watching Kate make out with the pitcher hardly calms his desire, but the typewriter excites a more profound passion. "The enormity of this gift is truly staggering," Gary says. "It's as if he gave me the keys to a new car. I promise myself I will never think snotty things about Uncle Sugar's hair and his balloon butt ever again. I have lusted for a typewriter for so long."

In fact, despite his carnal preoccupations, the novel isn't really about sexual awakening so much as literary awakening. Gary is discovering the wonder of words. Yes, it starts with things puerile - "Librarian has a bra in it." And soon, he's entertaining the school bully with scatological tales. But his fascination with storytelling keeps moving deeper.

From a book called "Improve Your Short-Story Writing in Thirty Days," Gary learns that a story must have a "rock in the pond," a sudden crisis that propels the hero to action. His teacher has no appreciation for his stories involving talking dogs, blood diseases, or rescued orphans, but he persists until he experiences a kind of epiphany of sympathy, a celebration of the ordinary and his role as observer.

"Whatever happens, I will write it down," he proclaims in a revelation mixed with vanity and triumph. "I will sit at the table with my family and write down their sighs, their little pleasures, their kind hearts, their faithfulness. In the face of sin and sorrow and the shadow of death itself, they do not neglect to wash the dishes."

Of course, this is the genesis of Keillor's genius, a love for quirky detail, an ear for the comedy of self-righteousness, and an eye for the foibles that make us human. A bit of every summer should be spent in Lake Wobegon.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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