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Leif Enger’s ‘Virgil Wander’ is a lovingly eccentric novel

December 24, 2018
‘Virgil Wander’ by Leif Enger, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018, 300 pages, $27

Know how it is when you like a book so much that you wonder how you’ve managed to miss other books by the same writer? Be prepared for that experience at the end of “Virgil Wander,” a new novel from Leif Enger.

Virgil Wander has been rooming for a while in a room above The Empress Theater, the only movie house in Greenstone, Minn., not too far from Lake Superior. He bought The Empress years back when he first moved to town, but these days Virgil finds himself serving as city clerk, too, because he’s having trouble making ends meet.

Most of the town is pretty much having trouble making ends meet. Greenstone is “full of people who could make you sad just by strolling into view.” But what a colorful group of those people surround Virgil:

• Rune Eliassen, “a restless mender and fixer of trifles,” arrives from Norway to search for a son he didn’t know he had and stays to build and fly kites in the shapes of everything from bicycles to giant dogs.

• Nadine Sandstrom fashions neon signs, and her 18-year-old son Bjorn surfs the cold waters off Greenstone, and they both live with the memory of Alec, husband and father, who disappeared from town one day flying a small plane.

• Adam Leer, director of one particularly notorious film, returns to town and to the rumor that he might have killed his own brother when they were kids.

• Jerry Fandeen’s growing success as a handyman has some increasingly sinister undertones.

Surrounding the idiosyncratic people of Greenstone are idiosyncratic non-human indications of the town’s hard luck as well:

• frog monsoons.

• a donut-eating raven who croaks “Whoever knew?”

• a rabid (maybe) raccoon.

• a murderous sturgeon haunting the swift, cold waters of the town.

• “the man on the water,” the vision that Virgil has been seeing with some frequency since he drove his car into those same freezing waters.

All of this comes to light in the aftermath of that car wreck, which opens the novel, a wreck that sends Virgil sailing from a bridge off Highway 61 and into Lake Superior.

The book then moves through the hard winter into the town’s latest spring festival — “Hard Luck Days” it is called — as Virgil regains the parts of his memory that he lost in his accident.

But the magic of the book lies not just in the hard-luck days of the town, but in the fact that Greenstone remains a haven of small, generous gestures: rarely used tools will be given out to an odd-jobber so that he can work at saving his marriage; the simple warmth of an unexpected dinner of corned beef hash will soften the bitterness of an unexpected snowstorm; “a scatter of people, together by accident, as if they’d all been called to the place with no idea why” will pause long enough to watch each other fly the same homemade kite and share in that momentary joy.

Then, too, there is The Empress Theater and its movies. The Empress serves as a gathering place for the town, and the movies shown there are movies “where the questions posed were smaller and could actually be answered.” Eventually Virgil comes to realize that The Empress has “begun to feel like a shelter, even an ark.”

There’s Enger’s admiration for the same small-town struggles that Richard Russo so lovingly delineates in his books like “Empire Falls,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Everybody’s Fool.” There’s even a smattering of the stark, black-and-white early film classics of Ingmar Bergman.

But “Virgil Wander” truly belongs to no one but Leif Enger. The book is lovingly eccentric, funny and warm. It is about the smallness of the lives of most of us, to be sure. But it is also about taking the new beginnings offered us, no matter how small those beginnings seem. And, like those kites of Rune Eliassen, it is very much about throwing ourselves into the winds of the future.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.

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