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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1890

Author: Leif Enger (b. 1961)

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (New York). 320 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Present day

Locale: Greenstone, Minnesota

When Virgil Wander has a near-death experience, he begins to reevaluate his life. Virgil’s interactions with a motley group of people in his little town of Greenstone, Minnesota, lead him to explore aspects of his identity that he had previously ignored.

Principal characters

Virgil Wander, theater owner and county clerk

Tom Beeman, his best friend, a journalist

Alec Sandstrom, a missing pilot; former baseball player

Rune Eliassen, Alec’s long-lost father, a kite maker

Nadine Sandstrom, Alec’s wife

Adam Leer, a screenwriter

Virgil Wander, author Leif Enger’s third novel, follows the events of the unlucky town of Greenstone, Minnesota, after the titular character has a near-death experience that changes to way he approaches his life. The novel is organized into four, primarily chronological, sections. The first section, “The Previous Tenant,” tells of Virgil’s car accident and the days after his return home from the hospital. Virgil has a concussion from the accident, and his first-person narrative reflects the confusion caused by the head injury. The second section, “The Bottle Imps,” intertwines memories from the past into the present-day narrative. The title of the section references a collection of illegally printed film reels stored in the Empress Theater, Virgil’s home and place of business for the last twenty years. Early in the first chapter of the section, Virgil is told, “‘Those old films are trouble. Imps in a bottle is what they are. I wonder at the mischief they might cause,’” foreshadowing later events. The third section is titled “Maximum Ceiling.” In this section, Virgil begins to look for ways to maximize his experiences and go beyond the mediocrity of his previous life. The final section, titled “Great Wide Open,” provides a sense of resolution to the many character threads.

Virgil Wander revolves around Virgil’s everyday life and the changes he makes following his accident. Virgil begins the novel with a statement of his mediocrity: “Now I think the picture was unspooling all along and I just failed to notice. The obvious really isn’t so—at least it wasn’t to me, a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things.” He then explains how his car slid of the road and into Lake Superior, where he was rescued by the town’s salvage man. Virgil’s outlook on life undergoes a metamorphosis as he recovers from a concussion that causes him to lose memories, his grasp of complex language, and the bulk of his former identity. He says, “The previous tenant was dead. Poor Virgil didn’t actually make it.” As he comes to this realization, Virgil begins to embrace a new outlook, engage in new relationships, and search for a new sense of identity.

The book portrays a series of quests. Virgil seeks to find a new sense of purpose as he learns to navigate life after near death. He no longer knows the person that he once was, and he does not know if he wants to return to that “tenant,” as he calls the person he was before. As he learns to navigate life from a new perspective, Virgil realizes, “A person never knows what is next—I don’t, anyway. The surface of everything is thinner than we know. A person can fall right through, without any warning at all.” Virgil becomes more involved with the people around him, developing relationships with Nadine Sandstrom and her teenage son, Bjorn. He notices how those relationships changed him: “Solid and self-possessed is how I felt, like a man with work to do—in other words, useful for once.” Another quest is seen in Rune Eliassen’s search to know his long-lost son, Alec Sandstrom, a famous minor-league baseball player who disappeared without a trace ten years earlier. Jerry Fandeen is in search of a reason to live and a way to make his wife love him again. Ann Fandeen just wants to find a place where she feels valued. Ten-year-old Galen Pea wants to revenge his father’s death. Yet other characters search for less obvious ends, and even the town council is on a quest to rebrand the town and escape from its negative reputation.

Enger partially achieves these quests through magical realism. Rune and his kites are one magical element. Whenever Rune flies a kite, people come to watch and participate. Everyone leaves happy, especially Virgil. The change in Virgil’s personality after his initial accident, like a man reborn, also holds traces of a mystical touch as he seeks out new relationships and begins to see a strange man standing on the water of the lake. He later comes to recognize this figure as death personified.Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

Adam Leer is a mystical character with a negative impact. It seems whenever something really bad happens, Adam is nearby. When Adam was seven years old, his older brother was lost in a snow storm. When Adam went searching with his father the child saw the taillight of his brother’s car in a ditch, but he did not tell anyone. His brother and the boy’s girlfriend were found frozen in that ditch several days later. Later, the town experienced a torrent of frogs falling from the sky, and it was suggested that Adam might have called down the storm of amphibians. Virgil says, “You can’t convict a man of a vibe—can’t talk about the feeling you get that something is trying your door. Yet Leer spoke into Shad Pea’s ear, his last day on this earth. He appeared to Rune who was nearly killed; spoke to me, and I saw my death; took the hand of Josephine Sayles, and she gave herself to the lake.” Leer was also one of the last people to see Alec Sandstrom alive.

The films in the Empress provide another slightly magical element at several points of the story. A local aging film theater, the Empress itself is not as special as the collection of old films, the “bottle imps,” that have been illegally stored in the north closet. Viewings of these classic films draw Virgil’s friends together throughout his tenure as the Empress’s owner, connecting the various characters and their personal quests. Enger also provides a touch of humor with the films; Virgil says, “Everyone has their favorite Woody Allens and mine are the ones without Woody in them.” The films serve as a plot device as well, since the very presence of these artifacts borders on illegality. Though the former version of Virgil did not care about the morality of holding these films, the new Virgil seeks to make it right. The theater also provides a sense of purpose for Bjorn, the teenage son of Nadine and the missing Alec, who has mainly floated aimlessly through the decade since his father’s disappearance. © Robin Enger

The novel also has a light sense of romance. Virgil has been attracted to Nadine, the wife of the missing baseball player, for years, however, he had not pursued anything more than a friendship for fear of offending her. After his accident, his personality change allows him to more actively pursue his interest; Nadine herself bluntly tells Virgil that she has been interested in him for years. Bjorn seems to begin a light relationship with a fellow high school student; Rune dates Adam’s cousin, Lucy DuFrayne; and Adam begins a short-term affair with Virgil’s administrative assistant Ann Fandeen, who has left her husband, Jerry.

From a literary standpoint, Enger’s description of the town of Greenstone, Minnesota, provides a quirky twist on the Midwest setting. Though it thrived for a short period of time, the town had an economic downturn when the local taconite mine petered out. After that, it was known for its hard luck, an issue that becomes the main concept for a yearly festival that Virgil, Ann, and mayor Lydia Fatz plan called Hard Luck Days. Lydia is bothered by the idea, noting, “Irony isn’t going to save us.” Lydia is wrong, however, and the festival does save Greenstone: “Hard Luck Days itself has thrived . . . . We retain our proud affliction tales, our rotating hit parade. New ones dominate the repertoire.” There is humor in the town’s misfortunes. For instance, at one point, the town was struck by a monsoon of frogs falling from the sky, and later an influx of voles invaded. Another time, singer Bob Dylan got two flat tires driving down the town’s short main drag. In addition to the town-wide misfortunes, the novel focuses on the bad luck experienced by its individual citizens, like Alec’s disappearance and a fire that injures Rune and his magical kites. Not all bad luck is viewed negatively, however. Virgil understands by the end of the novel that his accident has changed him permanently, saying, “The previous tenant might’ve done it forever, but he seems on extended leave. Really, I doubt his return.” He accepts and embraces what he eventually sees as a new chance at life.

Reviews of Virgil Wander have some variance in tone. Positive notes include Donna Bettencourt’s verdict of the novel for the Library Journal (1 Sept. 2018): “With an unexpected dry wit, Enger pens a loosely woven plot about plucky Greenstone residents working to rejuvenate their town but finding a bonus in their own renewed enthusiasm for life. Surprises and delights throughout.” Publishers Weekly (30 July 2018) applauds the creative elements of the novel, adding, “Enger’s novel gives magical realism a homely Midwestern twist, and should have very broad appeal.” Annie Bostrom for Booklist (1 Aug. 2018) also looked favorably on the novel, writing, “the focus of his bright and breathing third novel feels mostly like life itself, in all its smallness and bigness, and what it means to live a good one.” In contrast, a review of the novel for Kirkus Reviews (1 Aug. 2018) is much less affirming. The review calls the novel “overstuffed” and declares, “this novel has a lot more imagination than coherence.” Most critics, however, agreed that Virgil and the rest of the characters are engaging in their attempts to carve out a good life in a difficult town.

Review Sources

  • Bettencourt, Donna. Review of Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger. Library Journal, 1 Sept. 2018, pp. 51–2. Literary Reference Center Plus, Accessed 27 Dec. 2018.
  • Bostrom, Annie. Review of Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger. Booklist, 1 Aug. 2018, p. 29. Literary Reference Center Plus, Accessed 27 Dec. 2018.
  • Butler, Nickolas. “Leif Enger’s New Novel Brims with Grace and Quirky Charm.” Review of Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger. The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2018, Accessed 27 Dec. 2018.
  • Review of Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger. Kirkus Reviews, 1 Aug. 2018, p. 1. Literary Reference Center Plus, Accessed 27 Dec. 2018.
  • Review of Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger. Publishers Weekly, 30 July 2018, p. 62. Literary Reference Center Plus, Accessed 27 Dec. 2018.

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