Garrison Keillor, Pontoon
Publisher: Penguin Books
2008, 248 pages, paperback, $14

garrison keillor’s fifth Lake Wobegon offering, Pontoon, solidifies his standing as a literary, comical theologian. Keillor drifts beyond the themes of his weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, and explores Lutheran sex and the secret life of recently deceased Evelyn Peterson, an 82-year-old insomniac who supposedly passes in her sleep. But Keillor questions that notion in the first paragraph:

Probably she was sitting propped up in the bed reading and heard the brush of wings and smelled the cold clean air and the angel appeared like a deer in the bedroom and Evelyn said, “Not yet. I have to finish this book.” And the angel shook his golden locks, which made a skittery sound like dry seed pods, and he laughed a long silent laugh and took her pale hand in his. He’d heard that line, “Not yet,” before.

Throughout the book, Keillor’s lyrical prose and long, winding sentences reveal the story at an easy pace, but chug along through a compelling story of interconnected lives.

To lead readers through the novel, Keillor relies most heavily upon the character of Barbara, Evelyn’s alcoholic daughter, who discovers that her mother’s life consisted of more than making quilts and going to church. Most distressing to Barbara are the instructions Evelyn leaves to cremate her remains without ceremony, and drop them into Lake Wobegon sealed in a green bowling ball. Evelyn writes in her final letter to Barbara, “Odd I know, but I loved bowling with Raul”–her secret lover.

While we learn about Evelyn’s life, Keillor introduces new characters and storylines that come together in a hectic, absurdist conclusion, involving a pontoon boat, a visiting delegation of Danish clergymen, and a giant duck decoy, care of the Sons of Knute. As well, Keillor mixes in the local color of Lake Wobegon familiar to fans of his radio programs, like the Chatterbox Caf&eacute and the statue of the Unknown Norwegian.

In Pontoon, Keillor manages to poke fun at religion, sex, and troubling family dynamics without sounding judgmental or preachy, often within the same sentence or paragraph. He prudently disperses poignant revelations about life and the permanence of bad decisions into each character’s story with understated humor, generating many chuckles and a few reflective sighs.

-Mark Snell