Virgil Wander: book review


The dark, damp days between Christmas and the new year always seem designed for reading novels. I’ve devoured volumes of Dickens in that space before. This year, it was my Christmas book, selected from my Amazon wish list by my husband: Leif Enger’s October 2018 release, Virgil Wander*. I read it by rainy-day window light while rocking my baby to sleep for his nap, and by lamplight with steaming cups of Constant Comment tea. And for a few days, I lived in Greenstone, Minnesota.

It’s a testament to Leif Enger’s genius that when his title character, Virgil, recommended a movie — The Ladykillers from 1955: “You could fret all day and not choose a better picture” (173) — I chose to watch it that night, and, while watching it, found myself speculating about how the various book-characters reacted to this scene or that. I believed in them.

Enger’s first novel Peace Like a River captivated me when a friend gave it to our family fourteen or fifteen years ago. It’s one I seem to recommend to everyone. I eagerly read his second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, when it emerged in ’08. And I’ve been waiting the past decade for this one.

Unlike the previous two novels, and in spite of “Wander” in its title, this book stays rooted in one small town in northern Minnesota, yet manages to still feel like a quest or chase: fatherless sons, fathers seeking their sons, Wander and so many others seeming to look for a reason to keep on living. Enger’s penchant for the supernatural, which emerged as miracles in his first novel, shows up in less orthodox ways in this one.

But Enger continues his habit of perfect prose. I could see and hear and feel all that he described, and his hyperbolic characters were perfectly real to me. I believed in Virgil, come back from the near edge of death, in Nadine who made neon signs into works of art, in Leer and every odious rumor about him, and in Rune launching kites against all odds.

I’ll admit: without the overarching travel narrative of Enger’s other books, this one felt somewhat  episodic. I didn’t wonder while I was reading it, but looking back it seems the various strands of story make an untidy braid: an immense sturgeon, a car bomb, an unlooked-for windfall all figure in the final chapters.

Yet the book left me satisfied. Enger wove echos of Eden into his closing pages, and I like a novel that gives me a happy ending.

Is it a novel I’ll say you have to read? No. But I’m glad to have read it. I think I’ll be glad to read it again.


*Enger, Leif. Virgil Wander. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018. Print.

©2019 by Stacy Crouch

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