It’s rare for a new book by one of my favorite authors to sneak up on me, but somehow Garrison Keillor managed to publish The Lake Wobegon Virus with little or any fanfare last year.
Maybe it was because fans (well, at least this one) were disappointed by Keillor’s last journey to Lake Wobegon. Or maybe it was that his autobiography warranted a bit more of the marketing push and resources. Either way, it made it feel like reading The Lake Wobegon Virus is like discovering an episode of an old favorite TV show that you’d somehow missed through all the times watching and rewatching that show — comforting and familiar with a reminder of what you love about the property without necessarily stoking or diminishing the flames of your fandom.
A virus is sweeping through the small town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve with people acting strangely and being ruthlessly honest with each other. Some chalk it up to unpasteurized cheese getting out into the population while others think that mysterious billionaire buying up large chunks of real estate might be the culprit.
The thing that took me out of Keillor’s last several visits to Lake Wobegon was a feeling that he’d become too cynical for his own good — we were no longer laughing with the characters but at them. With The Lake Wobegon Virus. Keillor inserts a fictional version of himself into his fictional town and the novel feels like early works. There were moments that brought a smile to my face and a chuckle while reading that were, quite frankly, not present in the last few novels.
Keillor’s fictional doppelganger makes repeated references to avoiding writing his memoirs — which makes me think the real-life Keillor was having fiction reflect reality a bit. I could see Keillor using this novel as an escape from writing his memoirs or maybe as a warm-up to doing the work of examining his own life and putting down those details on the printed page.
The storytelling is very episodic in nature, feeling like Keillor is tying together some of his monologs from the waning days of his hosting The Prairie Home Companion. And while there is the pervading threat of the bad cheese hanging over things, it’s the stories of the lives of the people and the town that kept me going.
In many ways, this one feels like Keillor putting a final bow on his fictional small town — and I’ve got to admit that had me feeling a bit sentimental as the final page flipped by. I came away from the novel feeling a bit like I’d spent the last few moments when one of my favorite writers in the fictional world of his that I loved so much. If this is the end, it’s a nice way to go, reminding me of what I feel in love with Keillor’s writing and the town of Lake Wobegon all those decades ago.