We are practically a cult, we faithful fans of Leif Enger’s first novel, “Peace Like a River.” Appearing just as terrorists flew planes into the twin towers, Enger’s story about a saintly single father in Minnesota offered escape and inspiration when we needed them most. It was our era’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” — but so much better — glittering with Old West romance and spiritual vitality.
But the succeeding years have not been flush for Enger devotees. His second novel, “So Brave, Young, and Handsome” (2008), was about a writer trying to write his second novel. . . . And now, a full decade after that one, comes “Virgil Wander,” another small-town tale that struggles to be something more than merely charming.
In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d think that “Virgil Wander” had wandered over from Lake Wobegon. Enger risks trespassing on Garrison Keillor’s needlepointed territory with these good-natured folks who are all above average for quirkiness. His novel takes place in Greenstone, Minn., a moribund place trapped in the amber of its own nostalgia. (Bob Dylan once drove through, got two flat tires and found a piece of beer-bottle glass in his hamburger. He wrote a song about it, but nobody knows which one.) Nowadays, Greenstone is so desperate for revival that it stakes its future on a three-day festival called Hard Luck Days.
That ironic self-deprecation is pretty much the only thing Greenstone still manufactures, and it’s a particular specialty of this book’s narrator, Virgil Wander, who owns the local movie theater. A melancholy, Midwestern male, he describes himself as “cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.” But Virgil’s equanimity is jostled in the opening pages when he loses control of his car on a snowy day and plunges into Lake Superior. He awakens in the hospital with a “mild traumatic brain injury” that affects his memory and vocabulary. He is ordered to take it easy, and so does this novel.
Virgil returns to his apartment feeling a vague sense of disorientation. His shirts don’t look like his shirts. “The previous tenant was dead,” he claims. “Poor Virgil didn’t actually make it.” But if that brief sojourn in the underworld changed him, it was an awfully subtle change — a shift from ecru to beige. Any evidence of transformation is couched in stray bits of whimsy. We know, for instance, that Virgil cheated death because he keeps spotting a man wearing a black suit standing on the water about 100 yards from shore. Maybe it’s Jesus back from Brooks Brothers, maybe it’s the effect of Virgil’s brain injury or maybe it’s the author’s penchant for decorating the walls of this novel with fantastical knickknacks.
In any case, Virgil’s effort to rediscover himself is just one of several slowly developing quests in this warm and fuzzy place. As he regains his balance and mental stamina, he strikes up a friendship with an old man named Rune, who has arrived from the Arctic Circle. Rune is looking for information about a son he never knew: a minor league baseball player who once captured the town’s heart and then vanished. Virgil recalls that the young pitcher was “adored equally in this hapless village for his brush with greatness and for never achieving it.” Rune, who has the guileless personality of a Winnie-the-Pooh character, sets about investigating his son’s disappearance by flying homemade kites over Lake Superior because why not?
Watching Rune keep his giant kites in the air is a lot like watching Enger keep this spindly plot aloft: mildly diverting but not particularly consequential. A few more mysteries breeze in, but they generate little suspense. A wealthy loner in town may be hatching a sinister plot, but perhaps not. There’s a deadly fish that could be part sea monster but probably isn’t. And Virgil reignites a sweet romance with an old flame, but his passion generates all the heat of an old 40-watt bulb.
I wanted to like “Virgil Wander,” and I appreciate Enger’s attempt to capture the subterranean tremors that can unsettle a person or a town, but the story’s assorted eccentricities never gain much forward momentum — until, suddenly, all its little puzzles explode in the final, absurd pages. What Virgil calls the “fable-like atmosphere” remains simply cloudy, clotted by earnest pronouncements: “Just because a thing was poetry didn’t mean it never happened in the actual world, or that it couldn’t happen still.”
Enger tempts us to imagine we can catch the scent of magic wafting through this story, but too often we get these limp aphorisms instead. For all their studied quaintness, Virgil and his town aren’t vital enough to offer us a world that can shake ours.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Leif Enger
Grove. 300 pp. $27.