Monday, October 6, 2008

Garrison Keillor and "Jimmy Valente"

Though it can be pretty corny — probably because it's so corny — I like to listen to Garrison Keillor's radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.

I'm hardly a regular, but if I'm near a radio when it's on, why not? I even took my son, Ray to see a live PHC performance in Miami and enjoyed the Robert Altman PHC film, too.

But try as I might, I never warmed up to Keillor's prose. Maybe in small doses, but Lake Woebegone novels? Nah.

Here's a Sun-Sentinel review of Keillor's non-canon fiction based on the then-Minnesota governor.

by Richard Pachter

Did you hear the one about the pro wrestler who knocked out the Republican and Democratic heavyweights, and was elected governor of Minnesota?

It's not a joke. Or at least it's not an apocryphal one (though it may be a sign of the apocalypse of politics as usual.)

Former performance artist Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who achieved fame and fortune in that field facetiously referred to as "professional wrestling," did, indeed, become Minnesota's governor this year. One of his first official acts was a proposal to eliminate the state's support of public radio. In what can only be construed as a grudge match, Garrison Keillor of Minnesota Public Radio's weekly A Prairie Home Companion wrote this mock "as told to" biography of a character closely resembling his state's new chief executive.

Ventura is said to be troubled by this putative roman a clef, perhaps because he's cut out of any ancillary revenue. But Keillor's quickie pastiche is a surprisingly warmhearted pseudo-biographical mockumentary that does no harm to Ventura, or his fictional counterpart.

Keillor's character's first-person narrative is entertaining, clever and not excessively dumbed-down. Despite a few misplaced cultural referents (for example, there were no mosh pits at Led Zeppelin concerts in the early '70s, as I recall) the writing is punchy and playfully preposterous. The Ventura analog's prodigious ego and bombast are cleanly conveyed. There's very little plot in the tale — just biographical narrative and a relentless parade of mostly-buffoonish players — but the comic bearing of the protagonist and his world has to be swallowed whole or not at all. There's no room for contrast or complexity, just seamless (though self-evident) irony.

Despite himself and his assumed commie-pinko-leftist-Democrat leanings, Keillor makes Ventura/Valente patently likable and almost charming. The jugular-as-target is nowhere in sight, so one wonders what the author was really up to. Can it just be to benignly entertain and amuse with a story too ridiculous to not be true?

In fact, the only thing the real governor has to concern himself with is his inability to cash in, if and when this colorful story is turned into a movie, comic book, cartoon or action figure ensemble.

Keillor is too nice a person, sadly, to get into the chilling politics of the real story, its underlying creepiness and crypto-facsism, and what the success of this type of character says about the voters' intelligence and judgment. But Ventura may yet prove to be more (or less) than meets the eye, so perhaps it's still too early to ascribe any malevolence to his doppelganger.

In the meantime, this fast, funny fable may be all anyone needs to see where our silly obsession with heroes — real or otherwise — may lead.
originally published 2/99 in The Sun-Sentinel

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