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Fame was the spur

6 March 2004

12:00 AM

6 March 2004

12:00 AM

Love Me Garrison Keillor

Faber, pp.272, 10.99

Larry Wyler is a man in conflict. He knows what makes him happy — the St Matthew Passion, sex, a beef sirloin ‘slightly charred on the outside and reddish pink in the middle, nicely peppered, with mustard aioli’. But he has all these things in his little Minnesotan life: he met his wife singing Bach; they have great sex; they eat good steak. It is not enough. Aspiring writer Larry wants more. He wants New York. His dream, in fact, is ‘to work at the New Yorker and go to lunch at the Algonquin with Mr Shawn’.

Well Larry gets his ‘dream’, or something like it, and Love Me is a hilariously moving account of it. Larry is possibly the funniest literary creation of recent years, but locked as he is in a struggle between two selves, his plight also verges on the tragic. One self realises he’s lucky in his own life and anyway doesn’t quite belong in the one he aspires to (pitching up in New York he half-expects ‘some New Yorker to yell, “Hey! You with the hair! You’re from Minnesota!” ’). The other is desperate to live it nonetheless. When Larry badgers his wife about moving to Manhattan after the runaway success of his first novel, Iris asks, ‘What’s wrong with what we’ve got?’ And there’s the rub: nothing is wrong with what they’ve got. But Larry can’t escape a feeling that he should be living ‘a bigger life’. With his decision exacerbated by the fact he recognises its perversity, he packs his bags, purchases a million-dollar apartment, and answers the siren call.

New York is a disaster. Larry’s craving for greatness leads him to paralysis; after his second novel bombs he suffers writer’s block and spirals into alcoholism and depression. He eventually returns sheepishly to Minnesota with a new job as ‘Mr Blue’, the local agony columnist. In this guise Larry finally addresses his own problems. ‘Dear Anxious,’ he writes, ‘I have taken so many wrong turns and been so careless with precious things and managed to lose, or break, or leave out in the rain so much that I loved. Now I would rather walk barefoot across broken glass than be married to anyone other than my old lady.’

Love Me is a wonderfully frank, Woody Allen-esque portrait of two Bach-loving Democrats who meet as students and somehow end up growing old together, despite the human foibles that threaten to destroy them. Along the way Keillor imports some devastating truths, from the minute (the ‘3a.m. regrets’ we all have) to the monstrous (the way jealousy can consume, ambition obsess, other people’s success cripple). Rather than ruthlessly egotistical, Larry, whose ‘longing for a little fame’ is so acute it makes him ‘lonely’, is simply human. Before heading to Manhattan, his biggest fear is having a tombstone that reads, ‘A guy from round here/ He did about as much as he could with what he had.’ By the Epilogue, we know that Larry will probably die just that. But somehow it is plenty, it is more than enough.

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