Vegas Home Companion


Buttermilk pours through the phone.

Rich, soft, a sotto voce purr.

Garrison Keillor's voice is on the line.

"I'm about 15 minutes late calling you. I've been 15 minutes late for the last 10 years, except for my radio show. We're drowning in snow out here in Minnesota. Not that it's an excuse."

Apologies quite unnecessary to us here in Palm Tree Country. But even mounds of that white inconvenience stir sweet imagery from America's homespun home companion, recalling a recent trip.

"It was so beautiful, that snowfall in New York just before Christmas," Keillor says. "A whole different setting, changes everything. I saw little kids on the subway coming down to Central Park to slide down on plastic saucers. I felt so happy for these kids. Just a little taste of normal life. It's absolutely simple."

Keillor's scheduled lecture last September at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas was postponed when a mild stroke sidelined the patriarch of Lake Wobegon, now recovered and ready to make good Tuesday on his UNLV commitment. (Also, a high-definition "cinecast" of "Prairie Home Companion" will be screened at theaters nationwide on Feb. 4, including a half-dozen locally.)

Here, the man known for gentle wit and whimsy (and, yes, wholesomeness) gets down and folksy about living online, conquering terrorism fears and keeping our sense of humor.

Question: How's your health?

Answer: Fine, thank you for asking.

Q: Writers draw material from experiences both good and bad. Have you incorporated this into your work?

A: When I do my solo show, I talk about it a little, but audiences get all quiet and worried and reverent. The stroke I had, this clot hit what they call a silent part of the brain, where not much is going on. There are migraine headaches that are worse. Compare that to people who've had a real encounter, and it's nothing.

Q; Speaking of normal life, as you mentioned, have you used social networking such as Twitter and Facebook, and do they enhance or impinge on normal life?

A: I've used Facebook, and I'm intrigued by it and a little disappointed by it. I've met a couple of people through this neutral medium, they've been very frank and confided in me online. But life is face to face, and what you're getting through these networks is an amusing simulacrum of life.

What does the Internet tell us about human nature? My politics and my philosophy is based on the idea that people are inherently decent. But the Internet makes us question this. When people are anonymous, as they can be on the Internet, they are capable of anger, crudity and rudeness they would never engage in if they were face to face. It's astonishing to me sometimes how cruel people are capable of being.

Q: Has being online made us too distracted to appreciate simpler pleasures?

A: My wife and I took a cruise over the holidays, and I was reading a book by a young Pakistani writer, the most wonderful piece of fiction I had read in years. The reason is I'm on vacation and I can read hours at a time. I'm on a ship, out of cell phone range. ... I'm away from media, and I just have this book in my hand, so I'm able to get into it in a way that I thought I had lost.

Q: How do you think the recession has impacted people's outlooks?

A: Young people, I worry about them. When the job market is so tough is the time for young people to be more adventurous, not less. If all these people who took sensible vocational courses are unemployed, to me this would encourage people with big dreams who want to be artists and writers and musicians, and why not? You might as well be an unemployed songwriter rather than an unemployed computer programmer. I worry that they start to feel a sense of loss that they will never obtain the opportunities their parents did.

Q: A critique of you on Slate.com commented that you present yourself as a sage, "a kind of Wobegon Obi-Wan." Do you think of yourself as sagacious?

A: It's a clever turn of phrase, but I don't think so. I am 67, at an age when you feel free to toss off advice, but my advice is pretty lighthearted. Lightheartedness is something to cherish. One tends to lose it as you get older. You have to fight this pretentiousness I have fully exercised talking to you. You have to encourage the young to have more fun. This country gets so uptight about things that are not important.

Q: What kinds of things?

A: This Christmas Day would-be bomber who tried to blow up his pants. The guy failed, and yet the other day flying into Minneapolis, a dog sniffing a bag in baggage claim barked and the airport is shut down for 90 minutes. We can't live like this. All of these people stand around stone-faced, imagining themselves in a plane that is blowing up, wondering if they ought to cancel their trip.

Q: Do you think people will eventually decide the price of safety is too high?

A: You're supposed to regain your sense of humor at some point. The Israeli people have stoically stood up to 50 years of much worse than this, and the British people when the IRA was setting off explosives in lobbies and parks. People refused to be cowed by bullies and by cruelty. We should follow their example.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

 

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