Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor








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Freed from the constraints of single radio episodes, Garrison Keillor can expand with abandon on the foibles of human behavior in his novels, which he does with abandon in his latest offering, Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon. Keillor assembles a cast of fully formed characters, people with flesh, who do things that people we know, even ourselves, may have done, or may have wanted to do. The fierce independence of 82-year-old Evelyn Peterson continues after her death, as her wishes for burial surprise her Lutheran neighbors. Her kindness to others and consideration of them, also survive her, and their behavior tells readers as much about her as it does about them. Readers will laugh on these pages, smile often, and reflect with some melancholy about the impact that others have on us, and that we have on others, as we live our lives in community, in family and in many different relationships. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 2, pp. 21-24:

She dialed Kyle's number at his apartment in Minneapolis. He picked up on the third ring. He sounded distracted. Kyle was a sophomore at the University, an English major, and he studied all the time.

"It's Mother, honey. I'm awfully sorry but I have bad news. Grandma died."

"Omigod." He let out a breath. "When did she die?" And a girl's voice said, "What?"

"She died in her sleep. Last night. It must have been sudden. She was reading a book and it fell on the floor and she just died."

He was crying and the girl was comforting him, she said, "It's okay, it's okay." And she hugged him. Barbara said, "I know it's a shock. Me, too. I just walked in and there she was. She must've had a heart attack."

"When did it happen?" He was crying, he could hardly get the words out. The girl whispered, "Who died?"

"Last night. Late. She went out for dinner with her buddies and came home and went to bed and she died. In her sleep. She was very peaceful."

The girl was whispering to him. "My grandma," said Kyle. "Last night."

Barbara said that Grandma was not afraid of death, she looked it straight in the eye, and don't you think she had such a good life because she knew life was short and that pushed her to do more than most people her age would dream of she talked, listening to him try to take a deep breath and compose himself and this girl, whoever she was, nuzzling him and then it dawned on Barbara that the two of them were naked. Something in the pitch of their voices. A mother can tell. Two naked young people, her freckle-faced boy weeping, and this other person—she imagined a bosomy girl with studs in her nipples and a butterfly tattoo on her butt.

She didn't tell him that she was, at that very moment, sitting on the bed where the dead body lay. She could see the shape of Mother's left hand under the sheet. She could have reached out and touched it.

"Are you okay?" he said. Yes, of course she was okay, she only wished she could tell him what it was like to walk in and to find her own mother, for crying out loud, lying in bed with her eyes open. "I suppose I'm in shock," she said. "I don't know what we're going to do without her."

She listened hard for the girl to say something.

"When's the funeral?" Kyle asked.

"Well, that's what I called you about." And she read him the letter. Word for word.

"That is so awesome," he said. He wasn't crying anymore, he was half laughing. "Wow. A bowling ball! ! You mean, like a real bowling ball ?"

"I found it in her closet. It's green. Like green marble. Expen­sive. It looks Italian."

"And no eulogy, no prayers. Boy. She had a whole other life, didn't she."

"I am just a little worried about this Raoul. What if he shows up?"

"Of course he'll show up. We'll invite him. He was her boy­friend. He loved her." Kyle sounded a little giddy. "God, Grand­ma! I always thought she had something else going on!"

"You think we should? Really? I don't know what to do," said Barbara.

"We're going to do it just exactly the way she wanted it," he said. "I'm going to do it myself." He was all excited now, bounc­ing around and yipping about his parasail the one he had built from a kit what was a parasail? (parasol?)—and now the girl's voice said, "Kyle, I can't let you do that. You know how I feel," and he walked away from her. He was naked in a bedroom in Minneapolis with a girl. Barbara wanted to ask, "Who's there?" On the other hand she didn't want to know. A redhead maybe, one of those freckled Irish beauties, howbeit with tiny silver ham­mers stuck in her nipples. A little trollop who could seduce and ensnare a bright but naive young man, and lead him off to an itinerant life of miming for spare change on street corners, her smart little boy so good in school, so innocent in the ways of the world, and her eyes filled with tears at the thought of losing him. The boy who achieved Eagle Scout and who put on the white robe every Sunday morning and carried the cross down the church aisle who had almost not gone to college but his mother made him go, who was on the road to becoming somebody - he was in clutches of the trollop. Maybe she had interrupted them in the midst of hot sex. She tried to imagine his skinny body inter­twined with a girl's. How weak men are! Educate them all you like, make them read philosophy and history and poetry, but when the waitress leans over the table and her shapely breasts hung like ripe fruit, men go blank, their pants enlarge, intelligence  plummets, they are ready to buy whatever is offered and pay any price. Give them the check, they will sign it! Take their shoes, their watch, the loose change jingling in their pocket- they will look at you in awestruck wonder, little girl, and whisper Thank You as you wave good-bye.

"It's okay, Mom. Call up the mortuary. Not Lindberg. I don't think he does cremations. Call one in St. Cloud. Look in the Yellow Pages. I'll be there tomorrow morning. Do you need me to find Raoul?"

"No, I'll find him myself. Soon as I hang up."

"Promise? You can't leave Raoul out." Kyle laughed. Raoul. She had visions of a dance instructor in a storefront studio, Raoul's House of Samba, a lounge lizard in black slacks and fla­menco shirt, his specialty: mature women, unattached. Twenty dollars a dance, no extra charge for the squeeze.


Pontoon is a celebration of life, urging all readers to know these characters, people just like us, who just have to live life to the fullest.


Steve Hopkins, February 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2008 issue of Executive Times


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