The Magazine

Pretty Bad Goods

Shop A Prairie Home Companion till you drop.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By JOE QUEENAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

NOT LONG AGO, THE belligerently-mannered New York radio personality Jonathan Schwartz confided in his listeners that he could not go on living without being able to hear Frank Sinatra's memorable version of "Our Love Is Here to Stay" at least one more time.

I have to admit that the unforgettable selection in question may have been "Embraceable You" or "Softly As I Leave You"--memory fails me. What caught my attention here was not the deejay's predictable, self-congratulatory homage to the obviously great (let the public be damned; I'm still in Johann Sebastian Bach's corner!) nor even his manicured sincerity. Rather, it was the obstreperously precious quality to the comment: I, Jonathan Schwartz, having long ago pledged my fealty to the chairman of the board, could not possibly go on living without being able to hear one of his priceless recordings at least one more time.

This is what set Schwartz apart from ordinary mortals in Totowa and Council Bluffs and Chechnya and the Sudan: They could probably manage quite well without Frank, Billie, Tony, Bing, or Ella. But not Jonathan. Oh no, not Jonathan. Jonathan just couldn't go on breathing without Frank.

Having clearly established his own unassailable status as one who danced to the beat of a different drummer, Schwartz next launched into a fulsome paean to the high priest of idiosyncrasy: Garrison Keillor. Apparently, Keillor had recently appeared at a black-tie function attired in the requisite monkey suit, but purely to establish his countercultural bona fides and épater le bourgeois, Keillor had topped off the ensemble with a pair of lurid red sneakers. And it was this insouciant touch that prompted Schwartz to rhapsodize about the subversive subtext implicit in the donning of such garish footwear. Red sneakers at a black-tie function! Such cheek! Such sassiness! Imagine the chagrin of the multitudinous suits, marooned in their black wing-tips!

Oh yes, once again, the flabbergasted bourgeois were in for a good, sound epater-ing.

Of course, it wasn't just that Keillor wore idiotic, inappropriate, anachronistic sneakers that so impressed Schwartz. No, it was that the sneakers were worn--nay, sported--in such a casual, matter-of-fact fashion, as befat the Laird of Lake Wobegon. Not for Keillor was any of that ersatz, calculated mutinousness that one associates with roguish billionaires, insolent pop stars, and other faux iconoclasts. No, in the world according to Garrison Keillor, this gesture was entirely sui generis: Nothing could be more natural than turning up at a black-tie function sporting stupid red sneakers. For Keillor was nothing if not a maverick. And mavericks wore red sneakers.

Though the reader may detect an undercurrent of malice in the preceding paragraphs, I can truthfully say that I have nothing against the nation's designated imps, no axe to grind with the professionally precious. What does concern me is when the elfin charm and general wig-waggishness that we all associate with A Prairie Home Companion begins to spread into the general populace. Fanciful whimsiness of the National Public Radio variety is a vital element in this society and, so long as it is handled exclusively by seasoned professionals with extensive experience in the realm of the overweaningly twee, the MacroMaverick poses no threat to the commonweal. But when premeditated affectation begins to spread at the micro level, when amateur lone wolves begin to infest our towns and churches and schools and neighborhoods with their stage-managed coyness--frequently manifested in their footwear--then there is cause for concern.

This is why I was so troubled when I stumbled upon the Pretty Good Goods catalog, published by American Public Media Group. The catalog, replete with quintessential Prairie Home Companion-type merchandise, is for all intents and purposes the J. Crew catalog of choreographed cuteness. Apparently, it has been around for some time, but like a number of exotic viruses, has been keeping a relatively low profile.

It is quite a document. Here is the Norlender Traditional Norwegian Sweater, a macabre, snow-flake-adorned, orange-and-black pastiche perhaps designed to make middle-aged white men look even more ridiculous in the eyes of young African Americans. Here are the Wash Away Your Sins Soap and Hand Cleaner, the Church Potluck Supper Cookbook and Personalized Stoneware Dish, the American Duct Tape Council Embroidered Denim Shirt. And here, of course, are the Animal Tracks Walking Stick, the Hummingbird Balance Toy, Vanilla and Chocolate Scented Cow Soaps, My Granny's Purse Book, and the Navy Blue Reader's Wrap.

None of them are cheap. What's so great about that? you may ask. Well, nobody ever said any of this stuff was great. We merely said it was pretty good. Get it?