BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, October 2018
Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.
After his near-death experience, Virgil embarks on a journey of rediscovery through interactions with fellow townspeople, each of whom are engaged in their own respective voyages. There’s Rune, the affable Finnish kite-maker who is in town seeking information about his deceased son, Alec Sandstrom, whose death is central to Greenstone lore. Nadine is Alec’s widow, whom Virgil not so secretly pines for. Nadine’s son, Bjorn, seeks to both engage with and escape from his father’s memory. There’s also Jerry Fandeen, the lovable yet untrustworthy handyman trapped in a vulnerable situation. These select few are among the many characters that make up the body and communal soul of the small Minnesota community.
Greenstone and its townspeople share a heartbeat that has been thrown off-cadence by a sense of hopelessness. Struggles may vary from person to person, but they add up to a central thread of suffering that permeates the entire town. However, the story suggests that there is hope in this synergy. Collective precariousness can be transformed into collective uplift.
A book like Virgil Wander, with so many characters and subplots, can make for a convoluted read. But Enger does a truly masterful job of synthesizing these various components into a compelling and easily digestible whole.
Virgil Wander is a fast-paced, humorous and mystical novel about hope, friendship, love and the relationship between a town and its people.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Leif Enger for Virgil Wander.