A vanished baseball player with a magical pitch called the “mad mouse.” An aging coot obsessed with flying kites. A semi-reclusive film director whom bad luck seems to follow wherever he goes. A film projectionist who survives plunging off a bridge into an icy river. Bob Dylan. These are some of the eccentrics who pass through Greenstone, Minnesota, the heart of Virgil Wander, Leif Enger’s celebration of the small triumphs and tragedies of the forgotten Midwest.
Ten years have passed since Leif Enger’s last novel, So Brave Young and Handsome, the follow-up to his beloved bestselling debut, Peace like a River. Intentionally or not, Enger’s return arrives right on time. Virgil Wander is at once a perfect antidote to the ceaseless stream of outrage and despair monopolizing the daily news cycle and a tender paean to the much-maligned culture of the post-industrial small-town Midwest.
A veteran of Minnesota Public Radio, Enger has earned deserved comparisons to that institution’s most famous export, Garrison Keillor. Given Mr. Keillor’s recent exit from public life, Enger seems well-positioned to inherit the mantle of small-town Minnesota bard and champion. It’s impossible to read the meandering, episodic Virgil Wander, with its diverse population of charming eccentrics, without recalling the “News from Lake Wobegon.”
The title character is a county clerk and film projectionist at an aging movie house called the Empress. Still recovering from a near-death experience after drowsily driving his car off a bridge into an icy river, he tells his tale with the kind of dreamy, languid lyricism which invests the post-industrial hamlet of Greenstone with both a plainspoken humility and a mythic quality reminiscent of films like Field of Dreams and The Natural.
Fittingly, both film and baseball figure prominently in the loose plot of Virgil Wander. Virgil, part-time projectionist at the faded Empress, discovers a trove of classic film prints around which the town coalesces for late-night screenings. And Virgil’s love interest, Nadine, is a single mother abandoned by her husband, a vanished baseball prodigy named Alec Sandstrom who is famous for throwing a no-hitter as a member of the minor league Duluth Dukes: “How many pitchers in any league have a fastball with its own nickname?” Enger writes. “And what kind of fastball earns the name Mad Mouse? I will tell you: the kind that twists in crackling without one notion where it’s going. The kind you don’t see but hear hissing to itself like the bottle rocket before the bang.”
One cannot help but envision Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, striking out the Whammer before disappearing for the better part of his adult life. Indeed, Redford makes an appearance in Virgil Wander, via a screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “This was the film that made Redford as common as hamburgers,” Virgil muses. Could Enger not have been thinking of the glorious Roy Hobbs in his conception of the mysterious Alec Sandstrom, ghost of Greenstone, obstacle to the fulfillment of his hero’s romantic desires?
Though there is a semblance of plot in Virgil Wander—one that hinges on the fate of the Empress and the town; the mystery of Alec Sandstrom; the presence of an enigmatic film director and bringer of both wealth and bad luck; and an annual festival called Hard Luck Days with its hope of a miraculous appearance by Minnesota’s most famous son, Bob Dylan—the real pleasure in Virgil Wander derives from the whimsical humor of Enger’s voice and the boundless optimism of decent small-town people trying to make something out of nothing, not to get rich or famous, or even to feel vindicated, but to find peace and satisfaction.
Perhaps the most enduring and resonant image in this quiet, charming novel is that of an airborne kite. “Flying had immediate effects,” Enger writes. “It was like entering a whirlwind where ambition and disappointment are flung off, yet you remain calm in its eye.” One senses in the image a powerful and resonant talisman for uncertain times.
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016. He lives in Nashville.
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