April 2024

I Cheerfully Refuse

By Leif Enger
Review by
It’s in moments of earnest wonder that Leif Enger’s I Cheerfully Refuse is most compelling, like the brief but glorious clearing of a tempestuous sky.
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“Here at the beginning it must be said the End was on everyone’s mind,” opens Leif Enger’s fourth novel, I Cheerfully Refuse. In an unspecified near-future, as civilization slowly tips off a cliff’s edge, Rainy and his bookselling wife, Lark, eke out a cautious yet relatively tranquil life in a small community on the shore of Lake Superior. “Quixotes,” Lark calls the pair. “By which she meant not always sensible.”

When Lark brings home her favorite poet’s rare, unpublished manuscript, Kellan, the fugitive who gave her the book, comes with her and becomes their attic boarder. Though Lark and Rainy grow fond of Kellan, they’re uneasy about his past. Then Kellan disappears, heralding a violent sea change in their quiet lives. Kellan had warned of a ruthless pursuer, and when Lark becomes collateral damage in the chase, Rainy’s quixotic existence shatters.

Hounded by grief and the looming shadow of whoever was after Kellan, Rainy boards a tumbledown sailboat and takes to the lake. Soon, he is alone on Lake Superior with minimal sailing knowledge, and only Lark’s beloved manuscript and primal fear for company. He becomes a sort of Great Lakes Odysseus, sailing over a wine-dark sea toward the idea of his wife, and encountering no sea monsters, but instead finding fractious kingdoms and corpses rising from warming waters.

The novel’s ruined world, marked by book burnings, anti-intellectual sentiment, environmental disruption and casual brutality, will feel entirely too plausible for readers. Yet within its dystopian landscape, Enger’s story incorporates fabulism in the most traditional sense, featuring a serpentine quest, a rare and ancient tome, and even a bridge troll. As in the most memorable fables, I Cheerfully Refuse’s fantastical elements heighten the emotional impact of its depiction of violence and grief, elevating the entire narrative.

“I think the sea has no in-between: you get either rage and wayward lightning . . . or such freehanded beauty that time contracts,” Rainy observes early in his journey. Like the turbulent lake, I Cheerfully Refuse is filled with polarities that should contradict but somehow, instead, cohere: hopeless moments infused with light and shocking acts of cruelty depicted through beautiful, memorable prose. Although the struggle to survive leaves room for little else, Rainy still finds delight in simple, ordinary things: the post-storm sun or a ripe tomato. It’s in these moments of earnest wonder that I Cheerfully Refuse is most compelling, like the brief but glorious clearing of a tempestuous sky.

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I Cheerfully Refuse

I Cheerfully Refuse

By Leif Enger
Atlantic Monthly
ISBN 9780802162939

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