Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, Review by Bruce Jacobs
Imagine if Richard Russo climbed into his LL Beans and canoed all the way from Maine to the Northern Minnesota shores of the Big Lake and tapped out a novel in the divey Main Street Café. That novel likely couldn’t hold a candle to Leif Enger’s new novel of small-town life in fictional Greenstone—a place left behind by the closed taconite mine, empty freighter docks, and a moribund downtown movie palace half-heartedly run by the novel’s eponymous protagonist Virgil Wander. Virgil is a kind of washed up this and that who hasn’t quite got over the loss of his parents in a car wreck. When one snowy evening his own car goes flying off Highway 61 into the frigid Lake Superior, he is miraculously rescued by a local beachcombing vagabond.
Virgil Wander is full of such wonderfully rich characters. There’s the lackadaisical Sherriff who doesn’t much like his job and wasn’t a very good banker either. Rune, a Norwegian from above the Arctic Circle, is in town in search of information about the son he never knew who disappeared from Greenstone in a single engine plane crossing the lake. Rune is a kite craftsman who constructs intricate shapes of dogs, boats, and anvils that are way out of place in the sky. Soon everyone in town takes a turn flying Rune’s creations from the bluffs. A firm hand on a string attached to a buffeting kite in the sky is as close as any of them come to heaven, especially when their much-anticipated annual festival Hard Luck Days goes terribly wrong.
Enger hit the jackpot with his first novel Peace Like a River, but Virgil Wander is a marvel of imagination, humor, and storytelling that puts that debut in its place. Eat your good-natured heart out Richard Russo.