He asked whether language was returning, and I said yes but slowly. Seeing my frustration, he said 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.
With the great novelists, like Leif Enger and me, you sometimes have to wait a while between books. In the case of Enger’s latest, Virgil Wander, it’s been ten years. It’s tempting to compare it to his previous novels, Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young and Handsome, but this one’s so eccentric that seems kind of pointless. It’s pretty wonderful, though.
Virgil Wander, the titular narrator, owns a crumbling movie theater in the moribund town of Greenstone, Minnesota. Once it was a mining town, but that ended long ago and nothing has replaced it.
Virgil is recovering from injuries sustained when he went over a cliff and into Lake Superior in his car. He was rescued by a chance passerby, and is now dealing with minor, probably temporary, brain damage. This damage has changed some of his behavior, not always negatively.
Realizing he needs someone to prevent him absentmindedly burning down his home, he looks around for a roommate (he’s a bachelor). He invites a new acquaintance, Rune Eliassen, a visitor from Norway, to move in with him. Rune came to town to learn about his son, a local sports hero, whose existence he had never guessed until recently. Unfortunately, the son disappeared a few years back, lost flying a plane over the lake or absconded – no one knows for sure.
Rune has a remarkable gift – he makes amazing kites, which he likes to fly over the lake. The kites don’t even look like kites – shapes of dogs and houses and cars and bicycles – but they are wonderful to fly, and Virgil feels strangely alive whenever he gets the chance to fly one.
Rune’s lost son has left behind a beautiful wife (whom Virgil loves from afar) and a troubled son. Other characters include the hard-luck Pea family, whose little boy is obsessed with catching a legendary big fish. And an alcoholic handyman trying to win his wife back. The wife, however, has gotten involved with a celebrity son of the community, a one-hit auteur who shocked the world with his single movie, and now has moved back, claiming he wants to settle down and help the community. He even agrees to appear at the upcoming local festival – “Hard Luck Days” – which might just live up to its name all too well.
Meanwhile, Virgil has recurring visions of a man walking on the lake – and it’s not Jesus.
Most novels (and there’s nothing wrong with this) are experiences where you read along to find out what happens next. This book (it’s a little like Wodehouse in that way) is one where you savor each line and paragraph for its own sake, because the writing itself is a pleasure.
If we hadn’t been looking we’d never have seen it. I wondered then and still wonder what giants we miss by not looking.
Virgil Wander is a delightful book. I luxuriated in it. I recommend it highly. There’s Christian content here, by the way – but it’s parabolic, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.