His voice is just a whisper, but amplified by the microphone, it rolls out over the audience, low and mellifluous. What isn't soaked up, by the sellout crowd and the velvet stage curtains, resounds warmly in the auditorium.
They've been waiting for him. Standing in the wings during the early parts of the show as a klezmer-bluegrass band plays, he can feel the audience's tension. They'll smile widely at the bands, laugh generously at the skits, and give a big hand to everybody.
But they don't come for the country-polka-shapenote singing Prairie Grass Girls. They will never buy an album by the delta-blues-Appalachian-jazz Hep Cat Swinging Cowboys. They're waiting for this, his monologue.
When he utters the first words -- which rarely vary, the better to signal that the waiting is over and the main attraction has begun -- “It was a quiet week in our little town...” -- half the audience applauds for nothing, as if he were Liza Minnelli and the piano player had just plinked out the introduction to “New York, New York.” Then they lean back and sigh with pleasure. This is what they came for.
What's he going to talk about this week? The same thing -- loneliness, frustration, pain and death; the despair of those who long to break away, and the smug self-satisfaction of those who don't have the imagination to. But because his stories are told gently, and because they're set in a Normal Rockwell small town, people think they're just cute stories.
Look at ‘em -- drinking up his words like cats licking up milk. Nostalgia for a small-town past most of these folks never knew. They don't live in small towns. They live in suburbs, and they go to yoga and Pilates and shop at Whole Foods. They have double masters degrees in English and Psychology, and half of them have their own blogs. Yet they want to spend two hours pretending, pretending with him, that they all live in a fantasy world where there's one stop light, one grocery store, one bar, where they've never heard of WalMart.
Now it's time for a laugh, a sure-fire one. Since they're doing the show from home base in St. Paul, there's one sure-fire laugh. As sure as Woody Allen could get a laugh making fun of his Jewishness, as sure as Richard Pryor could get a laugh with the n-word, he can get a big belly-laugh by referring to only thing about his audience that is remotely ethnic. It doesn't matter what it's about, or even if there's a joke at all, as long as he can work a sentence around to ending with the word “Lutherans.”
Man, they love that. How long has he been standing up here? Not today -- how many years? Since the early 80s, and the show has hardly changed. He knows why they like it -- it's reassuring, like a Starbucks or a chain motel room -- the same, week after week.
Take that detective skit, it hasn't changed since 1990. The story never makes sense and God knows it's not funny. The audience barely even laughs. But at the end, they applaud just as warmly as they do for anything else.
He knows -- has known for a long time -- that they're not really listening. The detective who never solves anything, who never falls for the dame, who is sidetracked as easily as a character in an Ishiguro novel -- who is doomed to repeat, week after week, the same failure with the badly-voiced femme fatale, the same confusions over small things like keys and street names. Don't they understand -- It's modernism! It's Beckett! It's the theater of the absurd! The jokes aren't supposed to be funny.
They don't get it; still, they laugh politely, and then the Bulgarian tango singers file onto the stage.
Same thing with his monologue -- nobody's really listening. What's he talking about? The Lutheran pastor has to perform the farmer's funeral using hymns from the 1890s that no one knows, with the second verse in Norwegian, so he stays up half the night translating hymn verses from Victorian English to bad Norwegian and pasting the words into Photoshop. That's the thing -- it's not like the town is truly stuck in the past. People have cell phones and cable TV -- the better to make them miserable. But his audience just laughs. They know he'll never really overturn the mise-en-scene. A teenage girl might get pregnant, but it won't be because she was raped. A sensitive boy might dream of leaving town, and he might actually do it, but he won't shoot up the high school with an AK-47. There are certain boundaries, and everyone knows what they are.
He's tried making things edgier, veering into politics from time to time. Before the 2004 election he expressed outrage, attacked the Iraq war, said he was ashamed about Abu Ghraib. His audiences applauded in the same warm way, and a columnist even compared him to Walter Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War, saying “If you've lost Keillor, you've lost America.” But in the end it didn't make a bit of difference; Bush was re-elected anyway.
Since then, the stories are sadder. Fans of his work notice that he's killing off some characters. The owner of the tavern, the old Catholic priest, the organist at the Lutheran Church. The Norwegian Bachelor Farmers have been dying for twenty years; he kills another one today, and soon there will be none left. The young pitcher on the town's very minor league baseball team suffers a living death by never making it to the majors. If the pastor preaches a brilliant sermon, it is drowned out by the crying baby, the sound of the agnostic across the street mowing his lawn, and the high-pitched buzz of teenagers surreptitiously listening to iPods.
And if people crack, their breakdown is quiet. The name of the place alone -- doesn't anybody get it? Would it be any clearer if he'd called it the Valley of the Shadow of Death, or Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here-ville?
Well, he's not stuck like one of his characters. He got out. Not once, but twice.
First he got a job on the New Yorker. He could have become the next Thurber, if only he hadn't followed the dictum to write about what you know. A few years later he was back, doing a radio show that has turned into this monster.
Then after 15 years he said the hell with it. He ran off with a Danish woman and moved to Copenhagen. But the dark, endless Scandinavian winter was like being confined in the world's largest minimum security prison -- by comparison, winter in Minnesota is like a night in the drunk tank.
He gets a signal from the stage manager -- it's time to bring the monologue to a close. Somehow he has got the Lutheran pastor in a car on the melting ice in the middle of the lake with the ghost of the Norwegian Bachelor Farmer whose funeral he just conducted. Since Lutherans don't believe in exorcism, the pastor politely asks the ghost to leave, but the ghost replies, “You're cold? I'll show you cold,” and clutching at the door handle, his dead, white, already translucent fingers threaten to open the door and flood the car with ice water. And the pastor begins to cry and pray to God, “Don't leave me here. Don't let me die like this,” so God in the form of the monologist sends an ice boat that has gotten loose from its moorings and is spinning crazily across the lake, and the pastor manages to jump into the hull of the ice boat as the car begins to sink. The pastor is taken by the boat not in the direction of town but, like Jonah, far away from where he wants to be, way to the other side of the lake, where he spends the night huddled on the shore with nothing to keep him warm but a fire which he started by burning the pages from his Bible, just the Apocrypha was enough to get it started, and since Lutherans don't recognize the Apocrypha anyway, nothing was really lost. The next morning he hikes around the lake and back into town, where he sits down to write another sermon to be delivered next Sunday, and the new organist will play a hymn, and everyone will wait expectantly as he rises to deliver his sermon, and everything will be just as it was.
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What do you do when you're trapped by success, and your fans won't let you do anything else?