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.