When I say that I am not a fan of "A Prairie Home Companion," I mean I am not a fan. And by that I mean I do not enjoy it with a passion. Just hearing that old piano on the radio in the room next door, honey, makes me want to jab at myself with a rusty garden tool.
But Garrison Keillor today in the Times Book section offered such a heroically sane -- and funny -- review of Bernard-Henri Lévy's book, "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville" that I am going to have to write a note of apology to him, and perhaps a large check to my NPR station. Here's the jist:
It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas...Beverly Hills...Bourbon Street...Graceland...a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco...the Mall of America...Mount Rushmore...a couple of evangelical megachurches...the Mormons of Salt Lake...some Amish...Alcatraz. For some reason he missed...the World's Largest Ball of Twine....
But there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title. [emphasis mine]
That's just the warm-up. It gets better. How can you not love a sentence that starts, "And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox...."
Lévy is a rock star here -- known to one and all as "B.H.L." He's got floppy Euro-hair, one-too-many buttons undone on his shirts, and seems qualified to weigh in on everything. Oh, and with a certain whiff about him that's difficult to describe. Perhaps it is, as the church lady would say, "We like ourselves a lot, don't we Bernard-Henri?"
(But he is a very smart man. No contest. But I would expect a really smart man to get past Graceland, and past the Mall of America, and past Alcatraz, if only to challenge his own assumptions. But what do I know? I am an American living in Paris, struggling every day just to describe what I see.)
In the review, I must say, I find G.K.'s restraint admirable, considering that he is such a potentially easy target, and would play so unqualifiably poorly in the heartland. "Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like 'as always in America.' Bombast comes naturally to him.... With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound."
Imagine the temptation he must have felt to call him an "A.H." and cut out early for a long lunch.
Though he does fire off a round of live ammo at the end. It's worth a read.
Bless you, G.K.