American fiction has just a handful of enduring chroniclers in flyover country. But those who keep count of Midwest voices, can add a Minnesotan, Leif Enger, to the list.

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Book review

American fiction has had just a handful of enduring chroniclers for flyover country. Willa Cather and Ole Rolvaag come to mind, as does Garrison Keillor. For those who keep count of regional voices, add another Minnesotan, Leif Enger, to the list.

Enger’s first novel, the best-selling “Peace Like a River,” used the state as a backdrop for the story that put him on the map as a writer. Now, in his third novel, “Virgil Wander,” the sense of place is even more strongly felt. Both the title character and the town in which he lives stand in for all the Rust Belt communities that have been hollowed out by the global economy.

Virgil, the story’s narrator, embodies the modesty of Greenstone, a former mining and shipping port on the banks of Lake Superior. Here, the skeleton of the deserted taconite factory looms on the horizon. Like it, Virgil has gone from youthful possibility to middle-aged bachelor with what one observer described as “a degree of forbearance approaching perpetual defeat.”

In better days, Greenstone was the childhood home of Bob Dylan. More recently, it received a flurry of publicity after one of its residents, a former minor-league baseball player, mysteriously disappeared. Lately, the return of the son of the town’s founder from a brief career in Hollywood has challenged the town’s down-and-out ecology.

Virgil, meanwhile, seems to be cruising in neutral. He serves as the city clerk and runs the town’s main entertainment hub, a dilapidated movie theater where he lives and screens films.

The story opens after an accident that plants the seed of change. After missing a curve on a road, his car plunging into a lake, Virgil’s resulting brain injury alters his perceptions to such a degree that he refers to his pre-accident self as “the previous tenant.” The new Virgil may have vertigo, but he also has acquired some gumption. Hallelujah.

Also new on the horizon: a Norwegian kite flyer named Rune, who has come to Greenstone to look into the past of his son, the missing baseball player. Rune’s kites take to the skies like a magical omen, while Ann, one of Virgil’s compatriots at City Hall, proposes a festival that capitalizes on the down-and-out character of the place: Let’s call it the Hard Luck Days, she suggests.

And so you see the comeback-kid trajectory of “Virgil Wander,” which, sadly, never quite lifts off like Rune’s kites. Maybe Enger was focused on giving an authentic quality to his portrait of small-town life rather than developing dramatic tension, but if so, it comes at the expense of plot. The obvious villain never quite lives up to his role, some strands of the story never quite connect, and the explosive ending feels like a gratuitous add-on.

Still, Enger is a writer to be appreciated by anyone who cares about words. The book is full of little gems, as when Virgil describes his doctor as “an aging athlete defeated by pastry” or wistfully notes how “years climb up your shoulder.” Also worth noting is Virgil himself, with his comforting voice and determination to do the right thing. In a world where self-promoters grab the headlines, it’s a pleasure to find a person who exudes such basic decency.


“Virgil Wander” by Leif Enger, Atlantic Monthly Press, 300 pp., $27