J.K. Rowling, Garrison Keillor, and the Battle for the Soul of Small-Town Life

J.K. Rowling, Garrison Keillor, and the Battle for the Soul of Small-Town Life

I’ve been listening to the audiobook recording of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, but I had to take a break from it. In Rowling’s first novel for adults, she gives us a small town full of Dursleys: jealous, insecure people who connive to land a vacant seat on a parish council. I switched The Casual Vacancy out for a few discs of Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues, which was like slipping into a warm bath of safe, simple comforts.

Why was Keillor such a welcome respite? Rowling’s book wasn’t particularly well-reviewed, but she’s at least buzzworthy—unlike Keillor, who at least one Minnesota magazine put on a thou-shalt-not-name list because he makes for such a boring story.

For all the success of Rowling’s Harry Potter epic, though, Keillor is still her better when it comes to simple storytelling. Keillor’s style is cinematic; beginning every monologue with “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegon,” he then sketches his milieu in deft gestures—mentioning a few local traditions and a few unusual occurrences, and of course giving a weather report—before gradually zooming in on one particular person whose story he proceeds to tell. His tone is gently omniscient: he sees all and offers a bit of context, but he remains an observer more than an interpreter.

By contrast, Rowling is clinical. She sets each scene by telling us precisely what’s in a character’s head and then noting relevant details from the character’s personal history, so that we are prepared to precisely interpret the significance of unfolding events. She’ll often flip perspectives among different characters in a scene, so that we understand exactly how the characters are bringing their different viewpoints to bear. Little is left to the imagination—a technique that was helpful when Rowling was describing the unfamiliar fantasy universe of Hogwarts and Voldemort, but that becomes tedious when applied to mundane middle-aged middle-class lives.

One of the things that makes The Casual Vacancy “adult” is Rowling’s relentless fixation on the manipulative little games people play among their family members and friends. A husband gets himself a cup of tea, but significantly fails to offer one to his wife. A boyfriend agrees to go to an dinner his girlfriend arranged, but makes a point of accepting the invitation in such a way as to be able to say afterwards that he never really wanted to go. A wife drinks a bottle of wine while her husband is out, then quickly hides the empty bottle when he returns.

Certainly, things like this happen routinely in adult relationships, and not infrequently undermine those relationships to the point where they break. Keillor surely knows this; he’s on his third marriage. In all the 16 monologues included in the More News From Lake Wobegon set, though, the only whisper of divorce comes when an elderly man absent-mindedly forgets his wife at a gas station and she takes it as a sign that he’s fed up with her; at the end of the monologue, they reconcile and the man silently muses on the mysteries of marriage.

That’s the kind of thing that causes some listeners to detest Keillor, and it’s a reason why his stories are best served by being told aloud, one at a time—Keillor’s novel-length Lake Wobegon books sell well among his fans, but they’re long slogs to read from cover to cover, and despite his literary pretensions (he hosts the daily Writer’s Almanac on public radio), his prose in print has never received a fraction of the acclaim his radio work has earned.

Still, Keillor’s vision of small-town life is no less honest than Rowling’s. Keillor looks at Lake Wobegon and sees a population of people who are fundamentally kind and generous, whose ambitions and pleasures are modest but real, and who treasure their local community. Rowling, by contrast, looks at Pagford and sees a roiling kettle of resentment and bitterness, with residents forever grasping at a level of contentment they rarely achieve.

Each picture is incomplete, but each also represents a choice. When you look out at your neighbors—whether you’re in the country or in the city—do you choose to see people who are basically good and basically happy despite their inevitable frustrations and foibles, or do you choose to see people who are struggling every day to trust their lovers and friends and whose lives represent the sum of the compromises they’ve been forced to make?

Personally, I’d prefer to see the world as a place where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average—rather than as a place where the men are weak, the women are ugly, and the children are constant disappointments.

Jay Gabler