When all the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average, you know you've entered the mystical world of Lake Wobegon, created by National Public Radio personality Garrison Keillor. Fans of his radio show A Prairie Home Companion are familiar with his warm, funny, homespun persona, but fans of Kellior's novels have met a sharper, more acerbic storyteller, a relentless observer of human foibles, a welcome mug of holiday glugg that burns your tongue. His latest novel, A Christmas Blizzard, is a Thurber-esque fable about James and Joyce Sparrow, a rich but old-before-their-years couple gently at odds with each other in the days leading up to Christmas.
Joyce, who has the flu, reminds James that she wants a child; he is running from his dour Midwestern upbringing and his neuroses by forgetting himself in his energy drink company, founded after perhaps taking advantage of an inventor down on his luck. He is a non-fan of all things Christmas; she is a veritable one-woman holiday parade. He wants to decamp to their retreat in Hawaii and forget the seasonal jollity; she wants to bury herself in bedcovers.
This “sad man with a happy life” counts his blessings but looks over his shoulder, since the world—and his own psyche—can be a harsh place. Firing up the private jet for the islands and hoping to persuade Mrs. Sparrow to join him, James is suddenly forced to switch his destination to his hometown of Looseleaf, North Dakota, where his Uncle Earl is dying. Stranded in a sudden blizzard after landing, James is trapped in a mini-reunion with inlaws and other long-lost relatives in a town where “there was no weather forecasting, just a strong sense of foreboding.”
Trying to keep nosiness at bay while rediscovering a wet-tongue-on-cold-metal phobia dating from childhood, James presents himself as a CIA agent and backs himself into accepting an offer to "hide" in an old ice-fishing cabin on Lake Winnesissebigosh. The dreams, visitations and events that follow (including a sauna and plunge into the frigid lake with his new-age "visionary conversationalist" cousin Faye) are far from the quirky normal of that other lake setting, for which Keillor is best known. The book’s 19th-century style epigrammatic chapter titles (“Unpleasant memories of the joyous season,” “A brief background on how he came to acquire his enormous fortune,” "He meets his uncle who is in fine fettle indeed”) wink at and guide readers through this snowy and meandering journey into the human need for epiphany—which sounds a lot like Advent. Keillor's take on the season is a small, sweet bon-bon without the sugar rush.
Deanna Larson writes from Nashville.