Review: ‘Virgil Wander,’ by Leif Enger
Magical realism in the Midwestern vein tends to be weighted toward the realism. Which may be why this novel, with its fabulous elements, begins with something of a disclaimer — the narrator “concussed and more than a little adrift,” as he tells us, after flying his “heartbroken Pontiac” off Hwy. 61 into Lake Superior in a freakishly early winter storm. In fact, returning disoriented to his rooms above the Empress Theater, his quixotic movie house, it occurs to him, with a giddy sense of freedom: “The previous tenant was dead. Poor Virgil didn’t actually make it.”
So this is a story of renewal, spun for us by a man whose very name contains guidance (as in Dante’s Virgil) and an errant message: Wander. After his near-death experience, Virgil seems to have come unstuck from his wheel-spinning ways in a declining onetime taconite-mining town on the inland sea.
The town is in need of renewal as well, and its prospects also begin to look up when Virgil emerges from the hospital — “the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom.” Rune is an old widower fresh from Norway, trying to find out what he can about the son he never knew he had. That son, still missing six years after flying off in a 1946 Taylorcraft, has a whiff of myth about him, too, having once “pitched the only perfect game in the history of the Duluth Dukes of the Northern League.”
Rune is first seen flying a kite, and this is what the old man does: meticulously builds kites in unlikely guises (a dog, a bike, a stone fireplace … an anvil?) and flies them in such a way that all who encounter him are enchanted, take the string themselves and succumb to literal flights of fancy.
To give him even more fairy-tale clout, a raven attaches itself to him and visits him at the Empress, his temporary home, whose previous owner was named, yes, Edgar Poe.
There’s also Adam Leer, scion of the town’s founder and a sort of anti-Forrest Gump of Greenstone, around in some strange or suggestive way whenever anything goes wrong, who seems to exist simply to lend an element of villainy to Leif Enger’s shape-shifting tale.
“What in Greenstone has not been unlikely?” Virgil asks as the plot meanders toward a wildly eventful and climactic annual festival, this year themed “Hard Luck Days.” “Maybe the world isn’t small, as we constantly say, but expanding all the time.”
It’s an expansive vision Enger has, peopled with pretty regular folks but with room for romance and redemption, the drama of the everyman and the everyday, but also the kind of fish story in which a 90-pound 10-year-old boy might jump off a bridge onto the back of a sturgeon three times his weight, a fish he suspects lured his father to his death, and triumph.
Enger’s peculiar blending of poetic plainness and self-conscious artifice is such that, if you aren’t rolling your eyes at that Hiawathan tall tale, then you can be sure you’ve been expertly led into the realm of fiction where everything is possible, and “just because a thing is poetry,” as Rune tells Virgil, “didn’t mean it never happened in the actual world, or that it couldn’t happen still.”
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin.