Pontoon is the first Garrison Keillor book I’ve listened to or read. I’d heard little bits and pieces of Keillor, and he always struck me as mildly amusing, but maybe too corny in a midwestern sentimental way. I wasn’t sure I’d like an entire novel by him.
As I listened, though, I quickly became quite engrossed. Keillor is a master of small observations and character. He describes simple small-town people and events, and he is very loving with them, but not sentimental. Everyone is watched with his gentle eye, and he narrates a path along the curlicued trellis of their lives, taking detours and tangents until his story is a carefully wrought tracery of details. Just because these people lead ordinary lives does not mean that they are not extraordinary.
He uses deft metaphors, for example, describing the inadequacy of a eulogy’s platitudes to capture the complexities of a man’s life as “layers of whipped cream on a burnt sausage”.
The plot of Pontoon is not a happy one. It revolves around a memorial service and a wedding on a collision course. Many of the characters are troubled or grieving, but each is given his due. The overall message of the book seems to be: this too shall pass, but in the meantime, isn’t it wonderful?
His world outlook reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s, “We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is.”
Near the very end of the book, a character says,
You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories, and how we love them.
Pontoon is a fine example of the love of stories displacing the need for answers.