Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Virgil Wander is a phenomenal book. I adored Enger’s Peace Like a River and thus approached Virgil Wander with some trepidation. Could it be as good as Peace or even as good as his fine second novel So Brave Young and Handsome?  The answer, my friends, is that it’s much like a third child. It’s as different an animal as heredity and environment (and the same writer’s pen) will allow, yet that child is every bit as cherished as were its siblings. Virgil Wander is an entirely different novel than Peace was yet both tell a captivating story and feature engaging characters that linger with the reader long after the last page is turned.
Virgil Wander begins on the day of Virgil’s release from the hospital after suffering a “mild traumatic brain injury” upon rupturing a safety barrier on Highway 61 along Lake Superior during the season’s first snow and making a “long, lovely, some might say cinematic arc into the charming lake.” 

The only way to fully appreciate the joy of this novel, is to read some of Virgil’s musings as well as those of even the minor characters so ponder a few words from the first pages when Virgil’s neurologist predicts many possibilities for Virgil’s recovery and “Most welcome was his prediction that language would gradually return. Not that I couldn’t speak, but I had to stick to basics. My storehouse of English had been pillaged. At first, I thought common nouns were hardest hit, coffee and doorway and so on, but it soon became clear the missing were mostly adjectives. “Don’t worry, everything will come back,” said Dr. Koskinen. “Most things probably will. A good many of them might return. There will be at least a provisional rebound. How does this make you feel?” I wanted to say relieved or encouraged or at least hopeful but none of those were available.” . . . He was correct about the language, though. Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups. I remember when sea-kindly showed up, a sentimental favorite, followed by desiccated and massive. Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt; merry and boisterous arrived together.”
Virgil lives in an apartment above the Empress Theater which he owns and operates on an occasional basis. He’s also the town clerk, a part-time job that helps pay the bills. Virgil is primarily a wanderer as his name implies and he leads his readers and his neighbors on a ride as ordinary as running a film reel and as wild as riding the back of a sturgeon. 

On the day of Virgil’s release from the hospital, Rune, a Norwegian stranger, enters the “bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota” where he meets Virgil at the waterfront. Rune arrives in Greenstone in search of the son he’s only recently learned he’d fathered. Said son had been a minor league pitcher who’d once pitched a perfect game, attracted interest from the majors despite his Mark Fidrych-like inconsistencies, married, had a son, and then vanished in his flimsy plane over Lake Superior. Eccentric Rune makes and flies kites. They’re kites that most adjectives, even the ones Virgil's recovered, can’t begin to describe. Rune’s kites allow him to get to know the townspeople and his grandson as they fly them together beyond reality. Through Rune’s eyes, the reader sees the town and its residents uniquely. 

With a touch of Enger’s signature magical realism and plot details that conjure the mysterious, Virgil Wander is much more than a quirky character-driven ode to the Northland. It’s also a siren song of the need to find a place where you matter and to push the envelope when that place starts to disintegrate. The seductive appeal of the minor characters never distracts from the story thus allowing the reader to fall under mythical Greenstone’s spell. 

Summing it Up: Read Virgil Wander to enter the magical realm of a quirky, middle-aged man who’s rebirth after an accident offers the reader a view into a northern landscape where ordinary people act in mysterious ways.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: October 1, 2018
What Others are Saying:
“The focus of [Enger’s] bright and breathing third novel feels mostly like life itself, in all its smallness and bigness, and what it means to live a good one.”Booklist (starred review)

Virgil Wander is a fast-paced, humorous and mystical novel about hope, friendship, love and the relationship between a two and its people.”BookPage (top pick)

“Surprises and delights throughout; definitely worth waiting for.”Library Journal (starred review)