It strikes me that Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger, shares a few elements in common with Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield (click here to read our review of the latter). It is set in a small town on a body of water (Lake Superior) and draws its cast of largely sympathetic characters from this cohesive community. Both books begin with a resurrection, of sorts, and end with a wedding. And in both cases the “death” preceding the resurrection takes place off stage, with essential details withheld until the appropriate moment. A subtle aura of mystery crops up here and there in both books. They’re the sort of happenings you accept at first and then say, “Wait–what did he say?”
Whether and how the eponymous first-person narrator of Virgil Wander parallels his first-century Roman poet namesake is open to discussion. But that he is a masterful craftsman of word and image is beyond doubt. Virgil is replete with imagery. Giant fish. Serpents. People walking into, through, or on water. People, things, and animals taking flight. And food–shared, given, consumed at midnight banquets. As my husband and I have already discovered, the metaphors support endless speculation. The one thing you can just about count on is that Enger isn’t employing them in any conventional manner.
Virgil runs the Empress, a superannuated movie theater dating to the golden age of cinema. But though the world seems to have passed by Virgil and his theater, we sense that his rescue from the depths of Lake Superior portends a sea-change of some sort. We follow him through a number of meandering plot developments before gaining a sense of what shape this transformation will take. But the many engaging characters, clever descriptions, and hints of magic make us willing fellow travelers.
One of my favorite examples of Enger’s wit strikes me as an inside joke for writers, who are often charged to spurn adjectives in favor of solid nouns and active verbs. Virgil claims his brush with death has weakened his grasp on language, particularly adjectives. A consolatory neurologist tells him that “if a person were to lose any grammar then let it be adjectives. You could get by minus adjectives. In fact you appeared more decisive without them. He asked politely after my nouns, which were mostly intact, then declared with sudden intensity it was verbs you must truly not lose. Without verbs nothing gets done” (p. 112).
Virgil might not keep you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next. But given that 2020 has already done that, it’s rather nice to read something that doesn’t. The residents and spirit of Greenstone, Minnesota, may, nevertheless, make you reluctant to leave.