Set in a small, ex-industrial Midwestern town, Leif Enger’s third novel Virgil Wander (his first published this decade) follows a part-time municipal worker, part-time cinema operator named Virgil Wander who, after nearly drowning in a freak car accident, works to cultivate a more assertive approach towards his life. Now this works as a logline, but plot summaries or teasers don’t really apply to a book like this. Virgil Wander is as charming and whimsical as it is erratic and aimless. Sometimes all at once.
In a technical sense, plot events do occur in Virgil Wander. In fact, the story’s climax comes in the form of an absolutely wild, out-of-left-field fiasco that literally shakes the town’s foundation. Other sub-plots include a kite-loving stranger investigating the disappearance of his son, a menacing Hollywood director moving to town, a domesticated raccoon going on a rabid biting spree, and a sturgeon killing a veteran fisherman just to name a few. You know, the usual small-town affairs that always seem to happen in fiction.
Over the course of the novel, we watch as Virgil’s nuanced relationships with the townsfolk change for better or for worse as a result of his worldview-altering concussion. Enger proves himself a master of “show versus tell” by digging deep into Virgil’s personal history and current psychology by means of conversations and situations that should otherwise be completely mindless and mundane. Somehow a discussion with a gas-station attendant manages to be enthralling.
Action-wise, these sub-plots vary greatly in magnitude. But what’s fascinating is how Leif Enger manages to frame them from Virgil’s unique perspective so they all strike readers as important (because, in one way or another, they are important moments to Virgil). Told through the protagonist’s sardonic, highly-emotionally intelligent first-person perspective, his narrative style leaves the reader feeling as though the novel’s strange events are part of their own memory.
Virgil Wander is a novel requiring patience, and its slow-burn, enigmatic storytelling certainly won’t resonate with every reader. I imagine it will be perceived as completely pointless or utterly unique in its depth of character and setting, perhaps both opinions coming from the same reader. In the end, Leif Enger has crafted an exceptional blend of escapist beach read and character-driven literary fiction, with the incredible immediacy of his writing sure to stick with you long after the story is finished.