Why Can't You Guys Just Get It Together?
Keillor's Book for Nineties' Man Falls Flat
The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor Viking Penguin $22.00 340 pp.
Very few of us can talk about the Men's movement without smiling. The sweatlodges and firecircles and teary, bourbon-induced confessionals repel the very sympathy that their devotees are aiming for. The "movement" is most successful when it doesn't bill itself as such, but instead tries only to bring into focus the new and sometimes byzantine nuances of male-female relations. Any work that hopes to articulate the plight of the nineties man must, if only for the sake of critical viability, avoid at all cost a wounded or plaintive tone. Clearly, while "Men's Fiction" may have a place in the increasingly political world of writing and criticism, it will have to fight for it.
Is it possible, then, the Garrison Keillor's newest volume of short stories, entitled The Book of Guys(easy to understand, no big words), is actually a brilliant work of metabuffoonery, a calculated and strategic maneuver meant to keep the critics guessing? One would like to think so. Why else would Keillor, wry humorist and folksy radio personality, populate his stories with Neanderthals? Many of Keillor's narrators and protagonists, perplexed by the emotional machinations of modern women, can only shrug their shoulders, reach for another beer and perhaps scratch themselves. One story, written in verse, has the narrator muse:
Last weekend, in the boat, a big old green fly Came buzzing around my head. It Was the kind you see sitting on horseshit.
It lit on me right between the eyes.
And I though, 'It's hard to fool one of them green Flies'.
Besides such boneheaded lyricism, Keillor's men are capable only of the primal and sweaty masculine emotions: jealous violence and libidinous desire. This vision of New Age Man jars: a proudly belching bass fisherman, at peace with his clueless self.
Now if Keillor were defending the battlements of humor from an onslaught of Politically Correct invaders, his stories would at least have the intellectual weight of satire. Humor need not and probably should not concern itself with furthering any social agendas. But for The Book of Guys to champion humor, these stories would have to be funny. Keillor's humor consists chiefly of rank anachronism and clumsy juxtaposition: A Wild West cowboy buys a condo from a realtor; Dionysus hits 50, gets de-deified, and sees a therapist about his midlife crisis; Don Giovanni dispenses romantic advice from the Sportsman Bar, where he plays piano. Maybe these stories would be funnier if Keillor were telling them himself. Perhaps the humor of setting one story in a town called Piscacatawamaquoddy (and then referring to it by name much too often) lies in the delivery. On the page it does little more than fatigue the reader.
There are exceptions: one story (That Old Picayune-Moon) is very funny, a fabulous, ranting, nine page put-down which takes the form of a Letter to the Editor, full of zinging male bluster: "And then along came that greasy, flabby small-minded, mealy-mouthed, pasty-faced, and potato-headed daily fishwrap and dog's biffy, The Picayune-Moon, edited by that dildo Hector Timmy. (You.)" This story works because it remains within the realm of possibility, where Keillor's penchant for hyperbole and his expansive, ingenious vocabulary stretch the ordinary into the hilarious.
Had Keillor relied more on his ability to make the mundane funny, this collection would have been a better one. As they stand, most of these stories place male characters in strange and impossible settings, where Keillor's humor loses almost all of its edge. The Book of Guys comes off as contrived and ends up going over like a book would if it had a lead balloon tied to it.