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From Keillor, With ‘Love’

Larry Wyler and Iris O’Blennis, the protagonists of Garrison Keillor’s latest novel “Love Me,” may have a troubled marriage — made worse by Wyler’s frequent extracurricular trysts and extended absences — but at least they share one bond that’s unlikely to falter.

As Wyler confesses in the prologue, “One thing that kept our marriage together was a mutual distaste for Republicans.”

It’s a dynamic that to some extent is shared by all political parties and other groups of like-minded individuals, Keillor believes.

“Parties … find their greatest unity in antipathy, and then whenever they try to find unity in agreement, they only find disunity,” explains the 61-year-old Democrat.

On one level, the plot of Keillor’s latest work appears to parallel aspects of the author’s own life.

Wyler, after all, is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn., who flees the confines of the Gopher State for a dream job at the New Yorker magazine, before eventually launching an advice column under the pseudonym Mr. Blue.

But Keillor, the baritone-voiced raconteur and “A Prairie Home Companion” creator and host, who has regaled public radio listeners with his tales of the mythic Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon for nearly 30 years, cautions against reading too much into surface similarities.

“It’s a novel which uses certain superficial details about my life: the New Yorker, the Mr. Blue column for Salon.com, St. Paul, and also uses to some extent my first wife to whom the book is dedicated and a few other real people,” he says. “But out of this it really makes a

work of genuine fiction.”

In “Love Me,” Wyler, after success as a first-time novelist, leaves his social worker wife, Iris — “a true-blue feminist and Democrat out to save the world like her heroes Dorothea Dix and Jane Addams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton” — for the glitz of the Big Apple. There is the apartment on Central Park West, a string of lusty, “Sex and the City”-type flings, and constant elbow-rubbing with titans of New Yorker lore: E.B. White, John Updike and Pauline Kael. Wyler is in seventh heaven.

But it isn’t long before the first inklings that all is not right begin to emerge. The man who once envisioned a future as a “Prairie Proust” can’t seem to write a word, the fabled magazine appears to have fallen into the clutches of none other than the Mafia, and Wyler finds he misses his Iris.

Meanwhile, to skirt despair and pull in some extra cash after the failure of his second novel, Wyler accepts a gig as an advice columnist for the Minneapolis Star Journal, dishing out words of wisdom to a cast of colorful characters that runs the gamut from a conflicted turkey caller in Minnesota to a frustrated novelist in Texas who goes by the moniker “Curious George.”

In recent years, Keillor — who made his name writing and riffing about a place “where the women are strong, the men are good looking and all of the children are above average” — has garnered periodic attention for his literary and journalistic skewerings of various politicians including former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who Keillor maintains is “about a quarter-inch thick.” He calls the current President Bush “a very well-tended icon, monument.”

The characters in “Love Me,” like Keillor, take a dim view of the Grand Old Party. The Republicans who appear here are “rottweiler[s]” and “ideologues” primarily out to screw over the brotherhood of man, in Wyler’s opinion.

In lines representative of the book’s tone, the Reagan administration is out to “stick it to working people.” President Bush is a usurper, “a dreary little shtoonk” intent on inflicting “what damage he could on our decent society.” A fictional Democrat-turned-Republican mayor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Coleman — a former Democratic mayor of St. Paul turned Republican — is “a slippery little sucker with a big pickerel smile … [who’d] murmur endearments in your ear even as he was planning how to dispose of your body.”

Given the steady stream of partisan invective, was Keillor concerned the book’s anti-Republican bent might alienate some readers, possibly inciting a backlash of sorts?

“After Al Franken’s astonishing stroke of good luck, one could only wish for this,” he says impishly, referring to the success Franken’s book enjoyed after Fox News sued him for using the words “fair and balanced” in the title of his new book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”

(Judging from his book’s current perch on the New York Times bestseller list, Keillor has nothing to worry about.)

In his next novel, Keillor — the author of 13 books — will return to the Lake Wobegon backdrop to follow the tale of a woman “passionate about tomatoes and their life-giving powers.” He’s also completing an opera titled “Mr. and Mrs. Olson.” Then there’s a Wobegon-inspired screenplay he’s working on and the upcoming fall season of “A Prairie Home Companion,” which premieres Sept. 27.

In August, Democratic presidential aspirant Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) made a cameo appearance on a nonbroadcast “Prairie Home Companion” show, but Keillor says the invite didn’t indicate any presidential preference on his part. (A Graham staffer requested the appearance, and Keillor maintains he “would have said yes, I think, to any of the [Democratic] candidates or any Republican,” including Bush.)

Keillor is undecided on the current crop of Democratic presidential contenders, but he worries that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean may not be the political savior some Democrats believe him to be.

“I think [Dean] has a couple of issues around his neck that are poison, and one is the issue of gay marriage and the other is the issue of the war,” Keillor says. “The Democratic candidate in 2004 will have to accept the reality of [the Iraq war] and I’m not sure he is that candidate. I don’t think he is.”

During a speech last July at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee luncheon, Keillor made clear to fellow members of the party of Jefferson his unease about the current forces shaping the party.

“I told them I was concerned about a wave of anger on the part of Democrats across the country, which was finding expression in the Dean campaign. … I felt that this anger among Democrats was going to lead us politically in the wrong direction, that we were going to be talking as if we were outcasts or losers.

“We never lost our country,” Keillor adds. “Democrats have changed this country, and it won’t go back.”

Unsurprisingly, Keillor, who once quipped to a reporter that he was “trying to become a Republican,” admits he hasn’t made much progress on that front, yet.

“It’s kind of a struggle. I don’t know enough of them,” concedes the self-described “museum quality, tax and spend, knee-jerk liberal.”

“I feel very odd about not knowing any Republicans,” he concludes.

The Smithsonian Resident Associate Program will host Keillor at 7 p.m. Sept. 30 at Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. A book signing will follow the event, which is sold out. Call the Resident Associates Program at (202) 357-3030 for cancellations.

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