Here’s my article from International Review of Music:
July 15, 2012
By Michael Katz
Back in the late seventies I was living in Minneapolis, finishing up a nondescript career in corporate finance while scratching out fiction under the auspices of a writer’s community called the Loft. At that time, Garrison Keillor’s notoriety was just gathering steam. He’d been publishing short stories in The New Yorker for most of the decade, but the Twin Cities’ principle literary light at the time was Judith Guest, from whom I was taking a course in novel writing. Guest’s book, Ordinary People had been made into a movie directed by Robert Redford, provoking the kind of local excitement that Keillor must have slyly catalogued for future reference.
Fast forward twenty-seven years. I’m sitting at the Hollywood Bowl to see A Prairie Home Companion for the first time live. Keillor and a younger singer (and fiddler) named Sara Watkins are strolling through the crowd, singing duets, Keillor’s understated just-south-of-tenor melding with Watkins’s lovely voice. “Let It Be Me” reaches a crescendo as they ascend the top of the Bowl, and they segue into “America The Beautiful” as they return to the stage. I have long ago recognized the genius Keillor has for mining humor out of the stubborn ordinariness of life in Lake Wobegon, and the aches of longing and regret that are sprinkled through the aspirations of its residents. Attending as a music critic, there’s a particularly laudable ethic that bears mentioning as well.
Keillor’s musical tastes are eclectic, though they lean toward a kind of cheerfully lumpy, wryly funny style that can veer off without warning into the artistically sublime and then back again. He doesn’t need recognized pop stars to fill the Hollywood Bowl; after nearly four decades of this, he’s the star, and the audience will follow him. Most of the people sitting around me have no idea who will be in the show. I’m not suggesting to the folks at the LA Phil that anyone can do this. Still, it’s a concept.
The musical stars of this edition, besides Keillor’s own PHC troupe, are Sara Watkins, gospel singers the Steele Sisters and opera soprano Elie Dehn.
Watkins is a revelation. She starts out plucking her fiddle and singing a lithe version of Roger Miller’s “In The Summertime.” Over the course of the evening she will play the fiddle and the guitar, duet with Keillor on Bob Dylan’s “Satisfied Mind,” give a delightful version of John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Day,” and engage in one hot fiddle chorus with Richard Kriehn, from the show’s own The Guys All-Star Shoe Band. (Not all of this makes the actual radio show. The performance was taped Friday night and ran about twenty minutes long). It turns out that I haven’t made the Nickel Creek connection – that’s the band that featured Sara and her brother Sean. She’s working as a solo act now, and had to leave the show early to start an East Coast tour opening for Jackson Browne. I don’t think she’ll be an opening act for long.
Elie Dehn, from the New York Metropolitan Opera, is from Keillor’s home town of Anoka, about twenty miles north of St. Paul. Sadly (or maybe not) my versatility as a music critic ends a little short of the opera. But I can say confidently that Ms. Dehn has a beautiful, expressive voice. I could tell you that my favorite number of hers was the waltz from Romeo and Juliet, though the only song I actually understood was the ersatz ad she did for Anoka Jewelers to the tune of the aria from Bizet’s Carmen. Of course, it was typical of Garrison Keillor’s sense of decorum that he would follow Dehn’s back-to-back operatic numbers with his own poignant composition, “Don’t Scratch Your Butt.” Just to make the uncultured among us feel right at home.
The Steele Sisters, Jearlyn and Jevetta, are originally from Indiana but have resettled in the Twin Cities and are part of PHC’s revolving musical roster.
Like everyone else on the show, they combine their own specialty with funky good humor. Their highlights included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and a sultry, gospel tinged version of the standard “Without A Song,” that was quite unlike any version I’d heard before. “This Little Light Of Mine,” which featured the whole cast but most prominently the Steele Sisters, brought the show to a closing crescendo.
The aforementioned Guys All Star-Shoe Band had outstanding musicians as well, most notably the leader, Richard Dworsky, whose hard swinging, bluesy piano was the backbone of the group, and guitarist Pat Donohue who moved from gutsy blues to bluegrass to ballads, adding a growling vocal accompaniment to “Goin’ To California Blues.”
I’ll steer away from the sketches, several of which featured Martin Sheen. Listening to Keillor poke fun at LA, after living here all this time, gave me a similar feeling to hearing the original Lake Wobegon material when I resided in the Twin Cities — it was all just a little too familiar. But then, about halfway through the “News From Lake Wobegon,” Keillor had one of his characters make an abrupt career change to designing walleye lures (Lazy Ikes!) and then had him dragged around a lake by an 85 pound muskie. This harkened me back to my six glorious summers as the Fishing Counselor at North Star Camp For Boys in northern Wisconsin. I spent a lot of time in those days thinking about walleyes and muskies. I spent, in fact, considerably more time thinking about them than actually catching them. So there I was, cackling out loud at Keillor’s yarn, pretty clearly the only one in my section of the Hollywood Bowl who had ever harbored dreams of being dragged across a north woods lake by an eighty-five pound muskie.
I went home and looked for the Lazy Ike in my tackle box.
Things had come full circle.
* * * * * * * *
Some of you may have been wondering how I didn’t end up included in Andy Borowitz’s “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” his anthology that was published last year. I suppose not having been published in twenty years might have been a mitigating factor, though it didn’t seem to hurt O. Henry or James Thurber. Although the book certainly included many of my favorites, including Mark Twain, Calvin Trillin, Charles Portis, Woody Allen and Philip Roth, there were some notable omissions. You can’t feel bad being part of a “left off” list that includes Joseph Heller, John Barth, Carl Hiaasen, Thomas Berger and Donald Westlake.
You’ll note among the latter group a common trait: they all worked primarily in long form. To get on Borowitz’s list it helped to have a significant output of short stories or essays, preferably published in the New Yorker or something similarly Eastern. As someone who fell in love with comic novels from the first time I met Huck Finn, I thought I’d present my own list of favorites.
For a long time I kept a short list of best comic novels in the back of my mind, sort of the way people carry frayed photographs of their kids or relatives in the back of their wallets. Throughout my young adulthood, that list would always begin with Huck Finn, Catch-22 and Portnoy’s Complaint. I suppose coming of age in the early seventies, it wasn’t surprising to see books that dealt with racial inequality, the absurdity of war and masturbation at the top of the list, not necessarily in that order
The main contribution of collegiate lit courses was to introduce me to John Barth. In those days The Floating Opera, The End of The Road and Lost In The Funhouse were widely taught as examples of post-modernism, whatever that was, but it was The Sot-Weed Factor that captured my imagination. Set in early 18th century colonial Maryland, it told the story of Ebenezer Cooke, poet and virgin, and his chameleon-like mentor, Henry Burlingame. Barth wrote often and at great length about the Potomac and environs, but if you don’t mind 500 pages of early English dialect, Sot-Weed is his best.
During the early 1980s, it was possible to be sitting on a bus or by the pool or at the beach and hear somebody next to you hunched over a paperback and laughing out loud. They were probably reading John Kennedy Toole’s, A Confederacy of Dunces the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives with his mother in a crumbling house in New Orleans in the early sixties, scrawling out manifestos on Big Chief tablets and angry screeds to his sort-of girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. When Ignatius has to venture onto the streets of New Orleans in search of work, chaos ensues. Most people know the story by now of Toole’s suicide after failing to publish the book, and the campaign by his mother to sell the manuscript, which eventually was discovered by writer Walker Percy. For more insight, check out the documentary film, The Omega Point.
Charles Portis received a much-deserved public re-introduction when the Coen brothers remade True Grit, but my favorite of his remains Masters of Atlantis, a hilariously deadpan story of Lamar Jimmerson, an Indiana doughboy who becomes head of the Gnomons, a Mason-like sect that sweeps the country after the World War I. I owned the film rights for a few years, and tried unsuccessfully (so far) to get them back after True Grit was released. Hint to whoever acquires those rights: I’ve got a great screen adaptation! But I digress…
Thomas Berger gets a lifetime achievement award for my list. Certainly Little Big Man and Return of Little Big Man are landmark achievements, but it is Berger’s collection of mordant, exquisitely crafted novels of the latter part of the 20th century that stand out. They include: Neighbors, Nowhere, Meeting Evil, and my favorite, The Houseguest.
Turning to comic crime fiction, which is my specialty, the names that stand out are Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen. You can read any of the Dortmunder series and find yourself captivated by the capers of a hapless bunch of New York burglars led by the redoubtable John Dortmunder. Westlake’s invisible man story, Smoke, is equally enjoyable. Hiassen has his own trademark tales of Florida depravity. The early ones are my favorites, especially Native Tongue, his send-up of the Disney empire, with his corrupt Francis X. Kingsbury’s Amazing Kingdom of Thrills.
You cannot lose with Calvin Trillin. While most of his work is in shorter form – even his novels are on the slim side – Floater, his story of a “back-of-the-book” writer for Time in the sixties and Tepper Isn’t Going Out, his “parking novel” of a few years ago are wonderful.
Among more recent titles, Tom Perotta’s Little Children is a perfectly conceived and executed story set in the east coast suburban world of young families. And Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, about a dysfunctional Jewish family mourning the death of their father, is another that will have you laughing out loud.
I could go on. Richard Russo, Ron Carlson, Nora Ephron, James Wilcox, John Gregory Dunne, TC Boyle, Lorrie Moore, Thomas McGuane, all have moments of hilarity amid less purely comic work. But I think that is enough to take to the beach and have the person next to you wondering, what’s so funny?