It’s been almost twenty years since Leif Enger’s best-selling Peace Like a River, and ten since his last book So Brave, Young, and Handsome. Anticipation like that can ratchet up a reader’s expectations. Virgil Wander’s strength lies in its quirky characters and their unflagging belief in second chances.
Protagonist Virgil Wander is a town clerk by day and the owner of Greenstone, Minnesota’s failing cinema, the Empress by night. At the books open, his car careens off a cliff into Lake Superior. Everyone thinks he’s dead, but Virgil is saved by Marcus Jetty, the local salvage man out scouring the beach for treasure. He’s suffered a pretty severe concussion that has made him feel like a stranger in his own life and robbed him of some of his vocabulary, adjectives in particular.
As Virgil attempts to piece together his life from the scree, he is aided by a cast of characters, each suffering their own losses. Rune is a Finnish widower who has recently learned that he fathered a son, Alec Sandstrom, a man of legend in Greenstone due to the fact that he once pitched the only perfect game in the history of the Duluth Dukes of the Northern League and went missing six years prior after flying off into the sunset in a borrowed Taylorcraft. Rune is just one of a handful of eccentrics in Greenstone, but a new one, and he garners a bit of attention for his handmade kites in the shape of dogs, bicycles, and anvils. Alec’s wife, Nadine, is a beauty and the mother of Bjorn, a young man who works for Virgil at the Empress. Countless men have tried to win Nadine’s affection, including Adam Leer, the shady son of the town’s founding father who vanished after high school to become a film producer of some disrepute and has recently reemerged in a plume of suspicion. Virgil secretly pines for Nadine as well.
Greenstone has seen better days, and mayor Lydia decides a festival is in order, aptly called Hard Luck Days, meant to celebrate the tenacious spirit of the town. There is no shortage of troubles for the people of Greenstone: a man taken down by a murderous sturgeon, a boy determined to avenge his father’s death, a hard-luck maintenance guy sleeping in a rodent-infested building – but in each of these lives, Enger reveals the unmistakable beating heart of hope. The Empress is enjoying a revival, Rune has found a family in spite of the one he lost, and Virgil gets a second chance at love and life.
Virgil Wander is a story filled with tall tales and quiet ambition and reminded me of the Tim Burton movie, The Big Fish. If you’re a fan of magical realism, second chances, and the power of stories, check out Virgil Wander at your favorite bookstore or library.