A strain of pure nastiness isn’t a bad piece of equipment for a writer setting out to produce a comic novel — think of Evelyn Waugh or Gore Vidal. The most striking thing about WLT: A Radio Romance, Garrison Keillor’s first novel (not counting the linked monologues of Lake Wobegon Days), is the undertone of nastiness that occasionally seeps into it. This threatens to sour the aw-shucks humor, sentimentality, and schoolboy dirty-jokiness of his material, most of it a piece with the gently humorous monologues on his public-radio programs, A Prairie Home Companion and its current successor. But the tincture of nastiness is never distilled into a caustic plot, never rises to what Waugh called structural irony, and the book is left to muddle through as a series of anecdotes and set pieces — some funny, some not, some not meant to be. Until the end, anyway, when the bitterness comes across undiluted in a epilogue that works as a lethal satire of scandal-mongering biographers and journalists. It’s too bad the tail can’t wag the dog.
The amiable, mostly toothless dog is the story of a pioneer Midwestern radio station, WLT-”Your Home in the Air, originating from studios in downtown Minneapolis,” the announcer intones, ”pronouncing ‘Minneapolis’ as if Minneapolis were Paris.” The station is started in 1926 by two Norwegian-American brothers and temperamental opposites named Ray and Roy Soderbjerg as a way to draw customers to the family restaurant (WLT=With Lettuce and Tomato). But it soon becomes a cash cow with such programs as The Rise and Shine Show, Dad Benson’s Almanac, and Scripture Nuggets, performers like the Lonesome Ramblers and the Norsk Nightingale, and sponsors like NorthStar Tooth Powder, and Ramon’s Warm Café. Roy, the gangly introvert, broods on his farm while Ray, debonair and sarcastic, runs the station, lets his high-minded wife occupy herself with dull public-affairs programming, and sleeps with every woman he can get his hands on.
Ray’s contempt for the medium that makes him rich accounts for some of the more bitter and bracing passages: ”Radio was a gold mine, and it was a plague. Over thousands of years, man had won a measure of privacy…and now, with the purchase of a radio, man could return to cave-dwelling days when you were easy prey to every bore in the tribe…who wanted to deposit his life story all over you.” Ray isn’t meant to be the most compelling character in the book. But he is, as opposed to the hero, Francis With, first heard from as a 10-year-old North Dakota boy who writes a letter to Little Becky, the sweet, innocent juvenile character on a popular program who is played by an obscene, cigarette-smoking 14-year-old monster named Marjery. After his father is killed in a train wreck and his mother sinks into invalidism, Francis is sent to Minneapolis to live with his rakish Uncle Art, who works at WLT and fills him in on the behind-the-scenes sexual shenanigans there. Francis starts hanging around the station, gets goosed by Marjery and punches her out, and eventually becomes an announcer, changing his name to Frank White. He falls in love with a Milwaukee actress named Maria Antonio, and finally goes on to TV news in Chicago and, we learn in the epilogue, fame and fortune as a network anchorman in New York.
The transition from Francis to Frank, innocence to ambition, isn’t effectively conveyed, leaving him and the book conspicuously underdeveloped. Except for Ray, the novel’s caricatures are more engaging than its characters. The running joke through all this is that behind the saccharine, innocuous, decorous facade of the programming is an unholy mess of lechery, vanity, cruelty, and flatulence, some of which accidentally spills onto the air. But the joke gets to be monotonous and patronizing, and the far too obtrusive sexual stuff is almost all smirkingly or achingly adolescent. Still, whether or not God is in the details, as the saying goes, humor definitely is, and the book is full of parodic precision. The result is a sporadically rewarding novel without momentum. Connoisseurs of Keillor’s work on the radio will get their money’s worth from it; connoisseurs of the novel will agree that as a novelist Keillor is a good radio comedian. C