With this bittersweet comedy that mixes humor, erotic passion, and regret in perfect proportions, Garrison Keillor once again dives into the nuances of small town life in Lake Wobegon to explore larger American themes. The tensions between freedom and responsibility, progress and tradition, self-fulfillment and self-denial run throughout the book, as Clint Bunsen prepares for his final stint as chairman of Wobegon’s spectacular Fourth of July celebration.
Clint is beset with criticisms from townspeople who resent his CNN-worthy success with the previous year’s Fourth of July parade and pine for the good old days when the parade was little more than “a motley procession of snot-faced kids in paper tricornered hats waving sticks, anybody with a pickup truck, maybe with a couple elderly dogs and a sullen teenager holding a small flag” (p. 37). To complicate matters, Clint has fallen in love, via the Internet, with a twenty-eight-year old psychic/yoga teacher named Angelica who served as the previous year’s Miss Liberty and scandalized Wobegon’s wary Lutherans by marching in the parade wrapped in a robe—sans underwear. She’s back again this year and wants Clint to run away with her to California. The plan is tempting not just because Clint’s sixty, mired in a stale marriage, and stuck in a town filled with small-minded nitpickers and naysayers who fail to appreciate his efforts to produce, year after year, one of the most spectacular Fourth of July celebrations in the entire country. Escape is even more alluring because it would give him a chance to fulfill his dream, abandoned nearly forty years before, of living in California. The chance to rectify this error, and with a beautiful woman half his age, seems almost too good to be true.
For all its comic frustrations and slapstick farce, Liberty is a more serious novel than it may at first appear. The desire to escape confinement—whether political, personal, or moral—lies at the heart of American democracy and American literature. The dream of leaving behind the demands and constraints of civilization has always exerted a powerful pull on the American imagination. From John Steinbeck taking to the open road to Huck Finn’s escape down the Mississippi River to Jack Kerouac’s exuberant trips across America, the urge to shake off the shackles of responsibility runs deep in the American psyche. Independence, freedom from tyranny (whether from King George or the Lutheran spoilsports of Wobegon), the right to pursue one’s happiness without undue hindrance—this is what Clint longs for. That he should seek it on the Fourth of July with a woman who played the role of Lady Liberty is fitting on a number of levels. And though Keillor plays Clint’s dilemma mostly for laughs, the melancholy undercurrent of dissatisfaction, the deep yearning for a more free and fulfilling life, strikes at the heart of the predicament of the modern man—especially one who lives in Lake Wobegon.
Garrison Keillor, author of nearly a dozen books, is founder and host of the acclaimed radio show A Prairie Home Companion and the daily program The Writer’s Almanac. He is also a regular contributor to Time magazine.
- Clint complains that “You get no credit for accomplishment in this town. You could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and they’d say, ‘Peas! The man never grew peas in his life! Wouldn’t know peas from lentils’ ” (p. 19). What does Clint most dislike about Wobegon? What attitudes and behaviors is he constantly chafing against? Why does he feel he doesn’t belong there?
- Ricky, the slick CNN producer from Philadelphia, says of the Fourth of July in Wobegon: “Goodness. The human heart. A sense of community. The American family. That’s what we’re going to show today” (p. 190). What do these sentiments reveal about how people in cities view small town life? In what ways does the reality of life in Wobegon defy or complicate these clichés?
- Clint says that “July Fourth is the birthday of our country and deserves to be done right because, by God, it is a great country and it changed the world and if we can’t even find a way to say that, then who are we? A bunch of skunks, that’s who” (p. 2). Irene, on the other hand, feels that the Fourth “wasn’t about patriotism at all, just a bunch of men making noise, blowing off rockets. A day for the George Bushes of the world to wave the flag and parade around and pretend to be big shots” (p. 180). Which view seems more accurate to you? Which view does the novel itself seem to support?
- Which is worse, Clint’s family guilt-tripping him into abandoning his dream of living in California or Irene holding a gun on him to keep him from leaving? Or are Clint’s parents and Irene right in insisting that he remain in Wobegon?
- How is Keillor able to make his satire of small town Midwestern life so sharp and biting without seeming contemptuous?
- What do the minor characters—Art, Viola, Lyle, Diener, Berge, Father Wilmer—add to the texture of the novel? What roles do they play, individually and collectively?
- In what ways does Liberty explore the tensions between freedom and responsibility, adventure and stability, self-interest and self-sacrifice? Does the novel seem to favor one side of this dichotomy over the other?
- What are some of the funniest moments in Liberty? What makes these moments so amusing?
- Would Clint have been happier running away with Angelica, or is Irene right in saying their relationship is just a fantasy and that his real life is in Wobegon with her? Were you surprised by the ending? What path would you have chosen if you were in Clint’s shoes?
- What is Clint’s life likely to be like after the novel ends? How will his choice impact his feelings towards Wobegon, Irene, and his hopes and dreams?