In his previous two novels, "Kitchens of the Great Midwest" and "The Lager Queen of Minnesota," J. Ryan Stradal writes fetchingly of three lovely things: inventive food, craft beer and Minnesota. His latest novel, set in a supper club in northern Minnesota, possesses these same ingredients with added dashes of grief, estrangement, resignation and love. In other words, it's everything on the menu.
The journey begins in 1934 when Betty and her daughter, Florence, scrounging for pancakes in a restaurant in Red Wing, meet Floyd, owner of a North Woods supper club. Floyd pays their bill and gives them a ride north and a place to stay in an old resort cabin. Soon, Betty is waitressing at the Lakeside Inn, and Florence is mooning over a busboy.
The Lakeside Inn is "an impressive place ... decorated like a fancy hunting lodge, with white tablecloths, ornate stemmed glasses, and heavy, gleaming silverware. Its bar glisten[s] with ... colorful liquor bottles ... and its menu feature[s] ... grilled walleye and steak." Here, mother and daughter put down stakes among "the mounted fish and giant deer heads."
Generations ensue. Florence has a daughter, Mariel, who falls in love with the heir to Jorby's restaurant chain, Ned Prager, who vacations every summer Up North. With Ned and Mariel's marriage, vastly different culinary and cultural worlds collide. Will their son Gus inherit Jorby's or the Lakeside? There are tensions and tragedies but also joy throughout the 85 years of the novel.
Stradal is a genius at world-building. And his is a pleasant world filled with charming folk such as those you might encounter in a Lorna Landvik novel. But there's sadness, as well, as though the inhabitants are making do in a world that sometimes disappoints.
Take Florence, for example, who, when her daughter neglects to give her a ride home from church, sets up camp in the church foyer to wait. The standoff between the women lasts three months. So devoted is Florence to her "unofficial, unverified record for public passive-aggressive waiting" that Jason Davis does an "On the Road" episode about her.
There's also Brenda Kowalsky, the "sexually liberated local pariah" who brews her own gin and who finally bursts out of the shadow of petty town gossip by publicly stealing pie from Jorby's when the waitresses refuse to serve her.
And then there's Floyd's friend, Archie, a handsome loner who lives in small cabin, plays cribbage nightly with Floyd, and who begrudgingly leaves for Chicago upon Floyd's passionless marriage to Betty.
The novel — opening in 1934 and ending in the present day — changes time and point of view over chapters, which can make it hard to keep a firm grip on the timeline. It's a little like biting into an overstuffed burger served on a thin bun. But just because lettuce and tomatoes tumble out and you've got ketchup on your fingers doesn't mean the burger isn't good. Life is messy, and Stradal's novel — recognizable in all its North Country zest — satisfies.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer and reviewer.
Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club
By: J. Ryan Stradal.
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books, Viking, 335 pages, $27.
Events: Literature Lovers' Night Out, in conversation with Lorna Landvik, 7 p.m. April 25, Hook and Ladder Theater, 3010 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls., tickets $20-$15, bit.ly/40irJik; 7 p.m. June 24, Cream & Amber bookstore, Hopkins; 6:30 p.m. June 26, Carver County Library, Chanhassen.