Book Review: Pontoon by Garrison Keillor

By Robert J. Korpella

First posted on 11-15-2007

The subtle wit of Garrison Keillor is at work from the first sentence of Pontoon, his latest Lake Wobegon novel: “Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.”

Pontoon is Keillor’s fifth in the Lake Wobegon series and his first in six years. It is funny, edgy and misses few opportunities to poke fun at human foibles.

Pontoon is set in present-day Lake Wobegon and introduces us to Evelyn Peterson, an 82 year old woman whom the Angel of Death pays a visit. When the angel states the nature of his visit, Evelyn protests, “Not yet, I have to finish this book.” But the angel cannot wait and Keillor gives a vivid account of Evelyn’s skyward journey.

We soon discover that there was more to Evelyn than her Lutheran church-going and quilt-making life would suggest.

Much to her daughter, Barbara’s dismay, Evelyn had left instructions for her body to be cremated, the ashes sealed inside a green bowling ball and that dropped into the lake without as much as a eulogy or prayer service. 

“Odd, I know,” she wrote in her instructions, “but I loved bowling with Raoul.” Raoul, it turns out, was Evelyn’s longtime secret lover.

As we learn more about Evelyn’s life, we also meet several other townspeople, each with a quirk or two which makes them all the more interesting.

Like Debbie Detmer, returning from California to get married in her hometown, having made her fortune as an aromatherapy specialist for pets. Or Debbie’s dysfunctional parents: her father, spouting religious offerings after bumping his head on the bathtub, and her mother, who stoically goes about her life as if nothing is wrong.

We also meet a group of Danish Lutheran pastors, banished to a trip across America as punishment for their ultra-liberal views, and a sprinkling of other Lake Wobegon residents who add color to the story.

There are plenty of people and places familiar to Lake Wobegon fans, too – the Sons of Knute and their giant duck decoys, the Chatterbox Café and the statue of the Unknown Norwegian among others.

All the little subplots that Keillor develops over the bulk of the book simmer, then boil until they finally meet in a raucous, funny, fast-paced conclusion.

Keillor doesn’t mind poking fun at religious piety, sex or anything else about the human condition, and sometimes addresses several in the same paragraph.

The novel reads quickly even with the long, meandering sentences that are Keillor’s trademark style. Those familiar with his radio shows will surely hear the melodious voice reading to them.

Keillor’s seemingly effortless style makes us feel that humor is easily produced. We feel we are sitting down to coffee and crumb cake at the Chatterbox, eavesdropping as he recounts the week’s events. Pontoon is a gem of a Lake Wobegon novel. Definitely worth the read.

Pontoon

By Garrison Keillor

Viking, 248 pp., $25.95