Not too long after I reviewed a performance of “A Prairie Home Companion” in Billings in 1996, a friend suggested that Garrison Keillor was our generation’s Mark Twain. The thought has disrupted my listening to the radio show on odd occasions over the years, and it came rushing back when Keillor took the stage at the Alberta Bair Theater on Wednesday night.
He was dressed in an off-white suit that, despite the red tie, red athletic shoes and red socks, evoked memories of Twain himself, or at least of Hal Holbrook, who brought his one-man Twain show to the Alberta Bair the same year that “A Prairie Home Companion” played here.
There were at least traces of Twain in Keillor’s one-man show on Wednesday in what is billed as his farewell “America the Beautiful” tour. He is retiring from his long-running radio show in July, and the last performance at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., was held Saturday.
Like Twain, Keillor has an unfailing sense for the pathos and absurdity of rural American life. But by the time Twain had reached Keillor’s age of 73, his humor was darkened by searing commentary on religion, slavery and politics.
Keillor offered a much gentler view of American life, with only a couple of references to politics: mentions of Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz too obscure to recreate here, and a benign comment on America’s polarized politics: “Liberals are vague—they don’t know what they want” and “Conservatives want it to be 1958, except for science, which they want to be medieval.”
Mostly, Keillor sang the praises of modern life. “Happiness is in the small things,” he said, and pointed out a roster of things that have made life better: GPS, which tells you where to turn left, “but if you don’t, there’s no recrimination”; soft butter, unlike the hard butter of his youth, which had to be spread on bread that was like Kleenex; mind-altering drugs for dental work (“I’m very grateful that I have three more wisdom teeth”); and today’s “totally awesome” way of thinking about the world, which has replaced the “sort of” way of thinking in his fundamentalist youth in Minnesota.
Keillor, who was younger than many in his sold-out Alberta Bair audience, flawlessly tapped into not only his own past life but the lives of his listeners. He began the show with a half-sung, half-rapped song that paid tribute to such radio predecessors as “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Bob and Ray” and Fred Allen.
Then he led the audience in a medley of songs to which almost everybody knew the words: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Home on the Range” and the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” punctuated by a fairly eerie “whoo” from the audience.
Much of the show was an extended visit to Lake Woebegon, the fictional Minnesota town in which Keillor set many of weekly radio monologues. He talked about his parents, who married when their first child already was well on his way.
“Sin and shame welded these two people together,” he said, and they stayed together for 64 years, celebrating their anniversary only on the 50th.
He mentioned his childhood nickname of “Wiener,” part of the legacy of a crueler age.
“It sort of turned me against education in my formative years,” he said.
He talked about his high school speech teacher, who suggested that the nearsighted Keillor give speeches without his glasses, so that he would feel like he wasn’t speaking to classmates but to a Renoir painting.
“When someone gives you the gift of talking to people you cannot see,” he said, “you have taken the first step toward radio.”
And he talked of his Uncle Jack, who drank too much and cheated on his wife but loved poetry and would recite Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” on fishing trips.
Twain, by the way, hated Poe’s writing only a little less than he hated Jane Austen’s. “I could read his prose on salary,” he once wrote of Poe, “but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”
Toward the end of the show, Keillor reflected on death, which as he ages begins to seem like “the most boring thing that could ever happen to you.” But he said that we all reflect on our legacy, and he was aware that radio leaves no legacy whatsoever. Writers usually suffer the same fate, leaving behind only unread books on library shelves.
“I have written a whole bunch of novels,” Keillor said, “and I can read parts of them without suffering.”
Instead, he said, he hoped to be remembered for his limericks, and he rattled off four or five original limericks, including one that incorporated “Pocatello” and another that used “Billings.” Unfortunately, I have forgotten them all.
Keillor ended the show the same way he began, leading another medley of classic songs: “Red River Valley,” “Goodnight, Irene” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” before ending with “How Great Thou Art” and “Amen.”
The crowd leapt to their feet with a standing ovation, and he returned to the stage for a final bow. He is all of the Mark Twain we’ve got, and we hated to see him go.