In Garrison Keillor's laugh-filled umpteenth novel (it's hard to calculate precisely when he puts them out by the bushel load), the Wobegonians travel abroad for the first time. And they negotiate the streets of Rome and their feelings the same way they do back home — by telling stories about other Wobegonians.
The official purpose of their pilgrimage is to place a photo on a local war hero's grave. The unofficial purpose, for instigator Margie Krebsbach, is to seek out her own Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn-style. She hopes the locale will jump-start her husband's lagging libido, and if it doesn't, quel che sara. . . . Italian is a Romance language, and here's a whole boot-shaped land of men who speak it fluently. What she doesn't count on is a dozen townspeople and even Keillor himself tagging along. If we didn't get it with the small-town allegory, maybe we get it here: Life is like a free trip to Rome — surprising, exciting, wonderfully mismanaged, but we don't get to pick our seatmates.
Those who marginalize Keillor, who will appear Tuesday night in Tampa, as merely the host of the old-style radio show A Prairie Home Companion mistake the messenger for the message. Keillor's characters have always been complex and real, they have always spun out, and they have always shown that they can be horribly lost or capable of deep-cutting cruelty.
In Pilgrims, we learn that Pastor Ingqvist once told someone off with that classic Anglo-Saxon verb. And we witness extramarital shenanigans more tawdry than Audrey. Though this may shock a few, it shouldn't. Keillor has never brought us rosy-cheeked cardboard figures posed for a morality play. Once the chuckles subside, he leaves us with an engaging look at the true daily heroics: people struggling to go ahead and love those they've thrown in with, or — short of that — at least overcome the urge to give them a good choking.