Garrison Keillor, Shock Jock

When Garrison Keillor comes up, I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode in which Homer is watching Prairie Home Companion on PBS. He can’t understand why people are laughing, so he goes to the TV, bangs it as if it were broken, and says, “Stupid television! Be more funny! [sic to the best of my memory]” My response to Keillor is similar, though the admittedly over-harsh review of Levy’s American Vertigo was funny even if a bit unfair. In Slate, our friend Sam Anderson has an interesting piece on Keillor’s appeal.

Though Keillor is associated with the Midwest, his sensibility comes largely out of New York City. He began his career in the early ’70s writing short humorous essays for The New Yorker (he later became a staff writer then left, on a very high horse, when Tina Brown took over as editor in 1992). He is probably the purest living specimen of the magazine’s Golden Age aesthetic: sophisticated plainness, light sentimentality, significant trivia. He was inspired to create A Prairie Home Companion, in fact, while researching a New Yorker essay about the Grand Ole Opry, and we might think of the radio show as his own private version of the magazine, transposed into a different medium. The “News From Lake Wobegon” is basically an old-style Talk of the Town piece about the Midwest.

Keillor the writer often stands in sharp contrast to Keillor the radio persona. When he steps offstage and removes his bowtie, the transition seems to activate a surprising, and often fierce, critical intelligence. In January he published a viciously funny front-page essay in the Times Book Review accusing the French author Bernard Henri-Lévy of intellectual sloppiness in his efforts to grapple with America. With Twainian flair, Keillor turned Henri-Lévy’s own stylistic excesses against him. It was impossible to imagine the piece in his radio voice: The thought was way too fast and sophisticated. The critique was so spirited because Keillor’s approach to America is the exact opposite of Henri-Lévy’s: whereas the Frenchman (according to Keillor) is “short on the facts, long on conclusions” and possessed by a “childlike love of paradox,” Keillor is always deliberately long on facts, short on conclusions. He avoids paradox and all other forms of rhetorical cleverness, and he prefers anecdote to explanation. He’ll name 34 different garden vegetables and nine generations of Inqvist children before he’ll offer anything that might seem like a generalization.