Published by Grove Press
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Magical Realism
Greenstone, Minnesota is a hard luck little town. Once known for its taconite mines it has settled into a slow decline when Virgil Wander’s car goes over a cliff and into the lake one night in the midst of an unexpected snowstorm. He’s only alive because the local junkman was on the shore, dove in and saved him, but he suffers brain trauma that leaves him with vertigo, an aversion to loud noises, and the loss of adjectives in his vocabulary. He’s the main character in Leif Enger’s eponymous novel, Virgil Wander, and what happens to him and the rest of Greenstone makes for a quirky but penetrating novel told in a similar way as two other authors I love, Kent Haruf, for the quiet, simple prose and Brian Doyle, for the magical realism that perfectly meshes the magical found in the real.
Shortly after Virgil’s accident two newcomers appear in Greenstone. Actually, only one is new—Rune, an older man who has come to meet the son he never knew he had, except that son is gone. Disappeared after taking off in a small plane for a routine jaunt. Rune has a love of kites, amazing marvels he makes himself and that draw everyone in town to him and to flying them. For each, it is an act that brings clarity and peace and for Virgil, especially, it calms the jitters in his brain that leave him feeling he is living someone else’s life.
…the kite string hummed like a prayer in my head, I had access to stories not remembered in years.
The other new presence is someone who grew up in Greenstone, but left long ago. Adam Leer is the opposite of Rune. His calmness creates anxiety and a sense of danger. Outwardly, he is a man of money offering jobs to locals and trying to have a second act in his hometown, but inside him is a much darker cloud.
It can’t be too surprising that a novel set in Minnesota, with its sub-zero temperatures and months of darkness covered in mounds of snow, lends itself to the unusual. Enger uses this to great effect, lightly sprinkling the unexpected throughout Virgil Wander—whether it’s the raven that follows Rune and sits on his shoulder or the fact that what appears to be a tree later unfolds to reveal Adam. In the same way, he folds in elements of whimsy and darkness that don’t feel out of place: Virgil has a cache of old Hollywood films he plays in the ratty theater he owns, a 10-year-old boy engages in a battle with a monstrous sturgeon who killed his father, and the mayor exchanges Christmas cards with Bob Dylan.
None of this detracts from what is, at its heart, a simple novel about what we love and lose, growing old, giving up, and starting over. Enger applies this both to his characters and to the setting of Greenstone, which has been beset with bad luck for a generation now and seems destined to shut down completely. He is a capable guide as Virgil strives to recapture his balance and sense of self, bringing not only the wisdom of the elderly into Virgil’s life, but the often-overlooked lessons of youth. When Virgil hires a teenage boy to help in the theater he realizes
What I suddenly missed, as Bjorn talked away, was the easy arrival of interests. Of obsessions. I remembered stumbling onto things I loved, almost by accident—it used to happen a lot.
Until reading those lines I’d forgotten the time in life when everything was worth a try. Being reminded is one of the ways Virgil Wander hits its mark. There are misses as well, when the plot expanded more than I needed, but mostly, I marvel at how Enger shared life lessons through Virgil without making them feel like a greeting card. Instead, the novel is tender-hearted and expansive—welcome reading as the days grow shorter, grayer, and colder.