Homegrown Democrat

By Garrison Keillor

Viking Books, 237 pp., $19.95

First, I must admit: I am not a big fan of Garrison Keillor’s NPR variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. I can see that it’s funny to some people–say, grandparents who miss the good ol’ days, or farmers from Minnesota, or grandparents who want to become farmers from Minnesota after listening to the show–but I neither farm, nor grandparent, nor hail from Minnesota.

Much of Keillor’s latest book Homegrown Democrat‘s writing style is fun and quaint and apple-pie-and-lemonade sweet. In each chapter (“Where I’m Coming From,” “At the Cafe,” “A Civilized People”), Keillor starts out by reminiscing about the wholesome way in which he grew up. The anecdotes of adoring aunts and brotherly love and neighbors helping neighbors sound vaguely like a real-life version of The Truman Show instead of Anoka, Minn. in the 1950s. Minnesota meets Utopia. Minnetopia. He then meanders back to the Democrats.

Keillor’s view of his past suffers from an affliction that Douglas Coupland calls in his seminal book Generation X “vaccinated time travel.” You’ve got to be wearing Coke-bottle-thick, rose-colored glasses to look back in loving fondness to meeting up with your cousin unexpectedly in the farm outhouse’s old “two-holer.” (Yep, it’s exactly what you think). And: “Dishwashing brings out the romantic in a man”?

Democrats, Keillor points out, can be deeply flawed people. Boring, righteous, overly inclusive weenies, he calls them. But one thing Democrats do is care deeply about people. Rather than trying to keep crime or unemployment out of their own backyards, they want to keep those things out of everyone’s backyards. In the mindset of “the hard-ass Redneck Republican tax cutter of the suburbs, human misery is all a fiction. … Narcissism and cruelty are twins: we expect God to cut us slack and hold others to account.”

I happened to read Homegrown Democrat just after finishing Ayn Rand’s libertarian capitalist manifesto Atlas Shrugged, where self-serving industrialists are the ethical heroes and do-gooders are incompetent looters. Magically, when Rand’s protagonist crashes a plane, she limps away with a few scratches and a sprained ankle, but dammit, of course she can still work. The only character who ever needs help does the right thing by throwing herself in the river.

Ayn Rand forgot the idea that Keillor dedicates his book to: society operates at a deficit. If the government doesn’t watch out for the Little Guy, multinational corporations aren’t going to do it. Babies, the elderly and infirm, anyone who has ever attended public school, people who don’t want to inspect the quality of their meat themselves–no one is immune to government dependency at some point in their lives.

Keillor talks about the simple human pact: if you see that your neighbor’s car won’t start on a cold morning, you bring your jumper cables over, no question about it. Democrats just expound upon this idea: “The logical extension of this spirit is social welfare and the myriad government programs with long dry names all very uninteresting to you until you suddenly need one and then you turn into a Democrat.” Would Nancy Reagan have become a stem-cell research advocate if Ronald Reagan didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s disease?

The book often sounds like a 237-page free-writing assignment–or one of Grandpa’s amusing if long-winded stories. Keillor meanders; one sentence is nearly two pages long. But, one has to admit that sometimes it’s comforting to curl up with a nice glass of cocoa with little marshmallows and listen, or read, a folksy if long-winded story.