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Garrison Keillor's first novel, WLT: A Radio Romance, trips off his tongue as smoothly as an old-time Lutheran gospel, and it flows as easily as sketches on his old radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. WLT is the latest of several published works, but anyone who has heard Keillor spin tales about Lake Wobegon-told between wheezes and long pauses-or any of his favorite topics cannot separate the literary voice from the oral tradition, the printed text from the waves of sound.
It is a romance of radio, this book, both because it tells the story of a radio station launched in 1926 Minneapolis and because, between the lines, >WLT is the story of Keillor himself. He has slipped through the radio dial into the living rooms and automobiles of millions of Americans and, in the age of television, has breathed new life into a once magical medium of communication.
Like most of Keillor's work, WLT is set in Minnesota and features characters of prime Midwestern stock-Lutherans, many of them of Danish descent. Ray and Roy Soderburg are sibling entrepreneurs in Minneapolis trying to scrape by in the restaurant business when one of them-they argue as to whom-suggests broadcasting live from the dining room to attract business. "There are great ideas and then there are revolutions and by gosh radio is one of them, it's going to be a Radio Age'...they each remembered saying."
And so WLT (With Lettuce and Tomato) is born, with a 500 watt transmitter on top of a white tableclothed booth. Before 1926 is over, the station is a big hit. It's trash-Miss Stephanie and Her All-Boy Autoharp bands and Uncle Albert's poetry-but it's trash that the people love.
"The sheer bulk of it!, "Keillor writes. "After a year they had broadcast more words than Shakespeare ever wrote, most of it small talk, chatter, rat droppings...
"Radio invaded the home and distracted the family with its chatter and its gabble. It only made sense as a service for the elderly, the sick, the crippled, the shut-ins, the feeble minded." But the audience grows. The disabled and the healthy alike sit at rapt attention as the venues of WLT expand in whatever direction advertising dictates. For example, the The Rise and Shine Show first becomes The Blue Ribbon Shoe Polish Show and then The North Star Tooth Powder Program.
WLT, launched in the age of radio, remains a Midwestern phenomenon, and the setting of this novel keeps with Keillor's emphasis on rural storytelling. But along with Keillor's fondness for the land that "brung" him is his simultaneous desire to flee to the big city. The Law of the Provinces, Keillor writes in We Are Still Married, is this: Don't think you're somebody. If you were you wouldn't be here, you'd be on the coast.
As a Cincinnati native who has since come East, I think my heritage allows a special bond with Keillor. Midwesterners like myself seem to swell with pride at having produced such a talented man from the potato fields of Minnesota. It is as if we are desperately insecure about our contribution to national culture and politics. Ours is the birthplace of Lincoln and Twain-but they're dead now and we need someone new, I guess. Someone to tell our stories and sing our praises.
Our tendency is to use Keillor's essays and stories as a sacred text of a new Midwestern religion. But Garrison Keillor writes about a world that everyone knows. WLT: A Radio Romance traces, via a fictional narrative, the birth of radio, its peak of popularity and its decline.
Even before television allowed Americans to take national culture for granted, the waves of radio spun together people who had little in common. Radio, more than anything else, made discussion of a singular "Midwest" possible, allowing for common ground between Minnesota and Ohio just as it wove together the states of the Northeast.
The leading show on WLT, one which draws families near the radio during their lunch hour, is "Friendly Neighbor," featuring Dad Benson. The show is originally conceived by a coffee manufacturer, who simply wants to have a family sitting around the breakfast table sipping its brand.
But "Friendly Neighbor" quickly becomes a legend in its own right. Letters arrive by the bag loads. Listeners, piqued with worry over the traumas of Dad and his daughter Janie's lives, send cakes and pies to cheer them up and winter jackets when the weather turns cold.
Keillor paints a vivid picture of Friendly Neighbor. But he calls this novel a radio romance, and no radio romance is complete with only one station and its personalities. But Keillor also succeeds in sketching the lives of WLT's listeners, an essential aspect of the existence of any radio station. One listener that Keillor focuses on is Francis With from Mindren, North Dakota.
Francis, too, is born in 1926 and his childhood marches parallel the development of WLT. He is a devout fan of Friendly Neighbor and, when his engineer father dies in a train accident, Francis makes his way to Minneapolis to live with Uncle Art and work for WLT.
Francis, who changes his name to Frank White, starts slowly as a character, but his prominence in the narrative develops with his career at WLT. Despite the similarities, any thought that this Midwestern boy might have a life that parallels the author's are dashed when Frank takes a stab at television and hits it big.
Frank, like Keillor, does flee the Midwest for New York City. But though the Keillor voice has become a legendary trademark, the Keillor face (with his larger than human eyebrows) has never had the same potential.
Clearly, Frank is not a fictional representation of Keillor's life. His is only one role in a larger story about radio and American culture over three decades of this century.
In the end, the story of radio as told in WLT and the life of the author are indubitably intertwined. Keillor's romance with radio goes on with his new Saturday-afternoon radio show, American Radio Company of the Air, live from New York City. It's a romance that won't likely end soon.
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