Lake Wobegon is , of course, the fictional Minnesota town immortalized by author Garrison Keillor in several best selling books and in his long running radio show . It is a place where ” all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children above average”. It is home to businesses like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery Store, Bunsen Motors, Chatterbox Cafe, the Sidetrack Tap, Art’s Bait and Night O’Rest Motel, LuAnn’s Bon Marchaise Beauty Parlor and Salon, and Skoeghan’s 5 and Dime. It has a population of about 800, mostly dour, thrifty Norwegian-Americans many of whom are bachelor -farmers. There are the usual small town amusements , including ice fishing in winter. Sundays find most Wobegonians at church services, either Lutheran or Catholic.
I think you get the picture of what the town is like. Keillor writes about Lake Wobegon with affection and a droll sense of humor that have made me ( and many others) nostalgic for a place that doesn’t exist but seems oh-so-familiar.
Pontoon , Keillor’s latest novel set in Lake Wobegon, is a lulu. It begins with Evelyn Peterson passing away in her sleep at the age of 82 after a well – lived life. She leaves instructions that her body is to be cremated and the ashes enclosed in a bowling ball and dropped into Lake Wobegon . This is highly unusual , espescially for a conservative town like Lake Wobegon, but her daughter Barbara decides to honor her mother’s wish.
The next several chapters are used to flesh out the different characters and set the stage for the grand finale. We learn about Evelyn , about Jack whom she married out of pity ( he was about to be shipped out by the Army and he was sure he wasn’t going to make it back) and how she set out to enjoy life after cutting him loose. About the mysterious ,cigar smoking Raoul whom Evelyn met on a trip in Las Vegas and their long, secret, romance. Along the way we also come to know about the spunky Barbara, her failed marriage , and her children Muffy and Kyle. Kyle is into parasailing and decides to give his grandma a proper sendoff by gliding over the lake and airdropping the bowling ball with her ashes .
And there are the twenty four renegade Lutheran pastors from Denmark who are being punished for their temerity in denying the divinity of Jesus . They have been forced to take a trip to the American hinterland to rethink their convictions and find themselves in Lake Woebegon much against their will.
And then there’s free spirited Debbie Detmer who fled Loke Wobegon after she graduated high school and made a killing in veterinary aromatherapy. She’s back now to marry, or rather to excange commitments with, her boyfriend Brett . It’s to be a big ceremony with giant shrimp kabobs, French champagne , wheels of imported cheese, pate’ with whole peppercorns , a hot air balloon , a Flying Elvis, the pontoon boat and giant duck decoys.
When all these diverse characters collide there’s bound to be one giant mix-up . When it happens, it’s hilarious and will leave you in stitches. If you’ve read any of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon novels before , you don’t need me to tell you that. If you haven’t , let me say that Pontoon is great fun and you’re in for a real treat .
Pontoon. A novel of Lake Wobegon. By Garrison Keillor. Viking. 2007. $ 25.95.