Virgil Wander has lost the ability to modify his life, and for a man whose foundation is built on a staid lack of modification, that could be damning, indeed.
Before Virgil — the hero of Leif Enger’s tremendous new book, “Virgil Wander: A novel” (Grove Press) — plunges off the road and into icy Lake Superior, his life is on modification control, or as he describes it, “cruising along at medium altitude.”
After the accident, and after being plucked from the water by an unlikely savior who had no real reason, given the weather, for being where he was when he was, Virgil can no longer mentally form adjectives. While such a fate easily could be dooming to the protagonist of a novel, it becomes a running theme that Enger exploits beautifully. Because Virgil has to work so hard to find the right words to describe the small Midwestern town he inhabits, they are always spot-on, perfect descriptors.
In fact, part of the sheer joy of this book — Enger’s first in a decade, and only the second since his prize-winning book-of-the-year “Peace Like a River” — is reading the author’s gift for language and metaphor.
In the small town of Greenstone, Minn., there is a “bright hungry woman,” a “big specimen with translucent fuzz on his cheeks and Christmas yearning in his eyes,” a man with the “heartening bulk of the aging athlete defeated by pastry.”
That the author can gift us with throwaway lines such as “this he stated in a flattened voice like a wall hastily built to conceal ruins” or “my houseguest was an Arctic kite flyer who called up the wind like a take-out pizza” suggest the well is deep.
And, it is.
Just as deep is Enger’s story. Virgil, a city clerk cum movie theater owner and operator, is surrounded by characters who would feel most at home in a Roy Clarke novel. Largely downtrodden and dejected, Greenstone, as Virgil describes, is “filled with people who could make you sad just by strolling into view.” More telling, the narrator posits, “I realized I was one of them.”
For some it is lack of opportunity, for others simple bad luck compounded by bad choices. For Virgil, it is inertia. As he tells us, for someone of his name, he’s stayed an awful long time in the same place.
Yet, it is only amidst the broken that healing is necessary — or achievable. So it is, here: A colorful cast of characters complemented by the quotidian pleasures of small town life conspire to charm, welcome and teach us in that age-old way, through a story.
The lesson? There are so many, so lovingly given, but centering on this: “Don’t let anyone tell you that looking out for your vulnerable is less than a full-time deal. … The surface of everything is thinner than we know. A person can fall right through, without any warning at all.”
So, be warned. You will fall for Virgil and the others who bring Greenstone to life. You will learn to look at things differently — differently in the way only a person who has no words to describe them must look.