Garrison Keillor woke up in a Carrollton, Georgia, hotel room one recent morning and immediately realized that the idea for a swell new novel had blossomed in his brain overnight. Hours before, he was entertaining an enthusiastic local audience with tales of life in his famously fictional town of Lake Wobegon. Now, in the dead quiet well before dawn, he was typing on his laptop the beginning of what he believes he will title The LowBoys. “The first sentence is, I got into the music business in the hopes I would find a girlfriend who would love and admire me,” he tells me over the phone later that day. He laughs with delight. “It’s utterly brand new!”
Which, in a real sense, describes Garrison Keillor himself at this moment in his long, illustrious life. He is a changed man. No more heavy drinking in the hours following a sold-out performance, no more headlining at the Hollywood Bowl, no more racing between airports, no more dealing with corporate overseers, no more unhappiness at home. That’s all in the past. He is different, but contented, because he is, undeniably, old. That is what’s new. Time to begin shuffling off the stage. He is entirely okay with this, he says. Nature taking its course. And because he is sort of a genius and also hyper-self-aware, Keillor, who will be 80 this year, is savoring this special time.
“I feel like I’m starting a new life as a writer,” he says to me. “What I have is a pleasure in writing that is greater than it used to be. That may be a rare occurrence for a writer. Most of the ones I know are kind of winding down. I don’t feel that I am.”
In fact, Keillor has two new books just out. One, Boom Town, is probably the last in his series about the characters who populate Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. He’s written nearly 20 novels about that lovably odd hamlet “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” With a cadre of new-think millennials descending on the place he invented, the story he unwinds in Boom Town is essentially Keillor’s gentle way of bidding farewell to his long-running franchise and moving on.
Not coincidentally, the second of his new books is likewise about moving on. It’s a 90-page self-published masterwork about the inexorable decrepitude that accompanies old age — but, more importantly, also the manifold pleasures that accrue as you arrive there. Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 is a playful yet deeply felt meditation that ought to be a standard in the literature of human aging. I asked Kate Gustafson, president of Keillor’s production company, how she’d characterize the work. “It’s a novelty book, a gift book,” she ventured after a long pause. Keillor chortled when I told him that. No, no, he corrected, it’s actually “a memoir with an essay wrapped around it.”
His definitive memoir, That Time of Year, was published not so long ago, in 2020, but this newer one stands apart for its singular focus on aging and, too, Keillor’s lack of major regrets, because what’s the point? You learn from experiences and hope to do better in your remaining days, which are fewer, and therefore exponentially more precious, with each rising sun. That’s Keillor’s thinking. And yes, mine too.
I have scribbled notes on practically every page of Serenity at 70. It is wise and witty and also mordantly funny in the way that only a transcendent humorist could pull off. It is perhaps even more effective if you can imagine the author’s distinctive baritone reading it aloud in the long, languid sentences for which he is known. Here we are, mid-book: “Maybe I have 10 more years. What a gift. A whole decade to enjoy clocks ticking, fresh coffee, a walk in the park, deep-fried cheese curds and chili dogs, singing ‘Under African Skies’ with a tall woman, the pictures on my phone of my wife and my daughter …”
He then sprints into a roundabout telling of his life these last couple of years. (The book was written during the COVID-19 lockdown.) Doctor Keillor is here to help us fathom what is happening to our bodies and our minds as we journey toward our inevitable demise.
Is there anyone with a more reassuring bedside manner when addressing the subject of aging? Hard to imagine. “Now I’m over it,” he writes of the various stupidities that excite young people today, things such as hot-beverage cups “with smartass sayings on them.” Bah! “Life itself is good enough. Big things don’t bother me, little things make me intensely happy just like Green Stamps made my mother happy.”
It may appear as if ol’ Doc Keillor has devolved into the neighborhood’s good-natured fuddy-duddy. But he does not give a fig — because he is, after all, Garrison Keillor, whose high-profile career has been an exercise in defying what’s popular today for the sake of exploring the verities that matter. After all, his Lake Wobegon characters have been profoundly out of step with much of tech-modern America for a long time, but they are faithful to their Lord and they are decent, and Keillor understands that his audience glories in those attributes above all others.
More than anything, Keillor’s Serenity at 70 is a Baedeker to traveling the dead-end road ahead. It is almost certainly bound to be a short road, actuarially speaking. Accept the fact: your odds of making it to 100 are not so great. Therefore, per Doc Keillor, wallow in the tiny everyday pleasures still available to you. Wake up every morning, accept what’s imperfect and unfixable, and adjust accordingly.
Most of his guidelines are detailed in the chapter titled “Rules of the Game.” There are 23 rules. “Walk carefully. Look where you’re going. Stabilize yourself.” That’s one, and there are other minor ones much like it, each accompanied by anecdotes and explanations.
Then comes rule number 13, which stands above the others: “Get out of the way. You’re old and slow. Don’t be an obstacle.” If this suggests a man resigned to stepping back from life, it’s not that at all. More a realization — repeated throughout Serenity — that each generation gets its time in the spotlight. Be realistic, he says; move aside gracefully; resist anger. Speaking of his career, the author writes, “it used to be about me and it isn’t anymore.”
If you find yourself warmly embracing most of Keillor’s rules, I call your attention to the final one, number 23: “Pay no heed to someone else’s rules, especially if he has numbered them.” Ah! The author’s counsel, concludes the author, “is less useful than what you’d get out of a gumball machine.” So, Keillor is winking at us, albeit not with malicious intent. He is an entertainer, and his particular style has ever been to score serious points without allowing too much unpleasantness to undermine the fun. What he is going after is laughter with meaning.
Serenity at 70 would not have happened except for the pandemic. But it’s also true that had Garrison Keillor not experienced a fall from grace in 2017, he might still be filling auditoriums across America with audiences eager to be seated at his Prairie Home Companion singalongs, with millions listening in on radio. An accusation of sexual harrassment by a former researcher quickly led to his firing. Keillor called foul. “There was no kissing, no unbuttoning because we weren’t attracted to each other, we were just two aging adults having an adolescent fantasy,” he wrote in That Time of Year. He claimed that his boss, the CEO of Minnesota Public Radio, “kicked me out over the phone … there was no anger, no feeling expressed.” Well, perhaps no visible anger by MPR, which reportedly has a different take on Keillor’s alleged indiscretions. Keillor himself was plenty angry. He has written that he was unable to defuse what boiled within him until one day, in New York City, a priest prayed into his ear that the “injustice done to me” could be put aside. And that was it, Keillor wrote in his memoir. He was suddenly unburdened, and could return to the “quiet domestic life with the woman I love,” his third and current wife. But as the Washington Post reported in a lengthy piece last year, the scandal represented a “downfall” from which Keillor never fully recovered.
Now, from his hotel room in Georgia, between stops in his modest but well-received PHC tour — which, not surprisingly, has no broadcast distributor — Garrison Keillor is in a reflective mood. “I think I should quit while I’m ahead, while people are still having a good time,” he says to me over the phone. “I don’t want people walking away from the theater feeling pity for the guy up on stage.”
He recognizes that the #MeToo episode inflicted damage, but he has the benefit of a sizable fanbase that has remained loyal. “They love when a writer comes out on stage doing a monologue and a series of jokes and it meanders. It’s funny and it’s memoiristic,” he says, but it’s worlds apart from the approach of today’s popular standup comics. For example, he explains, “Seinfeld does a monologue that’s memorized, and it works beautifully for him. But I have to keep changing the subject because” — here Keillor breaks into a laugh — “maybe I forgot what should come next and I need to wander in another direction.”
What does Garrison Keillor expect to be doing following his 80th birthday in August? What’s he mean by “gaiety”? He says, “I think this year is likely to be my last traveling around and touring. I think I may be living more my wife’s style, with our friends in New York. I would be happy following her around. I’ve got a defibrillator in my chest, and that’s working,” he says. “And I’ve had a couple of little brain seizures for which there are fabulous medications. So, onward you go.”
He will spend a year or so writing The LowBoys, the novel which sprung into his head only hours before our phone call — and here in our conversation he sketched out what he already plans for the first several chapters — and he will carry on with Shakespeare’s Mom, a play he has been trying to finish for some time. And of course he will continue attending church for the purpose of weeping quietly while in the grip of the familiar holy music played there. It is, he says, an important Sunday ritual.
No matter what, he intends to stick with the schedule that has kept him in a creative seam for years: to bed by 9 o’clock, up at 4 or 5. “I do my stretches and make coffee and amazing things happen. Something happens when you’re asleep. Questions are answered unconsciously,” he says. “Ideas are dismissed and new ones come to you. Like the new LowBoys book. It’s absolutely magical.”
Most of Keillor’s life is wrapped up in writing and music. Always has been, actually. They are his fuel. Days after our chat, I asked him if he ever combines the two. “I don’t listen to music while working,” he responded punctually by text. “I have a rather narrow mind. Sometimes I receive sudden mysterious insights and I don’t want anything to interfere with them.”
A “narrow mind”? Okay, I will take him at his word. Garrison Keillor does not say what he does not mean. He is as attentive with his language as he is with his aging body. Consequently, I recall something he said just before we concluded our conversation: “My grandparents died of hard work at 73. And I avoided hard work, and here I am at 79 and I still feel a bounce. I feel kind of lively, and I’m grateful.” Impeccably and optimistically phrased, I thought to myself. Should not have expected anything less from Garrison Keillor.
Cable Neuhaus writes the “American Pop” column for the Post. In the last issue he covered the sudden explosion of TV game shows.
This article is featured in the May/June 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Productions)
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now