During the 1980s and ’90s, many Americans were thinking fondly of rural Minnesota, largely thanks to Garrison Keillor and his radio tales of Lake Wobegon: “The little town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve.” If Lake Wobegon was not the listener’s hometown, it might have been the place where Grandmother had lived.
People who were unfamiliar with Keillor’s work might have been reading the popular Cat Who mysteries by Lilian Jackson Braun, set “400 miles north of everywhere” in Pickax City, Minnesota, which was home to a lively collection of eccentric characters and one psychic Siamese cat. Small-town Minnesota became the beautiful icon of home.
Or did it? Leif Enger’s novel Virgil Wander, the choice for this year’s Door County Reads program, is set on the shore of Lake Superior in the declining town of Greenstone, Minnesota, which is famous for its bad luck. Nothing about Greenstone is reminiscent of Keillor or Braun.
Greenstone had once enjoyed a period of prosperity thanks to taconite mines that had supplied jobs and supported a shipping industry. But the taconite deposits turned out to be smaller than expected, and after they had been exhausted, Greenstone went from being a charming coastal village to a place of boarded storefronts and silent streets. Bad luck settled over the town like a perpetual fog.
Virgil Wander is set vaguely during the late 1990s or early 2000s, before smartphones became ubiquitous. The novel focuses on three central characters, the first of whom is Virgil himself. In the first chapter, Virgil becomes disoriented during a snowstorm and sails his Pontiac over a cliff, through a barrier and straight into Lake Superior.
He has better luck than most because a bystander is on hand to save his life, but he suffers a concussion that leaves him with serious memory loss. He can no longer drive, and he has difficulty remembering adjectives. (He has been sternly warned not to forget verbs.)
But at least he can return to his two jobs: he is both the city clerk and the proprietor of his beloved Empress Theatre, which still shows movies on film and averages “crowds” of about 10.
“Soon I’ll have to show movies from a hard drive like everyone else, a disturbing idea,” he writes. “I would say projectionists aren’t more sentimental than blacksmiths except that we probably are.”
The second character is Rune Eliassen, a bewhiskered, green-eyed stranger who appears on the shore shortly after Virgil’s accident. Rune has recently learned that he conceived a boy during a youthful fling in Greenstone, and he’s arrived to look for his son – the longed-for child who can continue the family line.
He learns that the young man was a failed minor-league pitcher who one day flew a small plane over Lake Superior and never returned. Rune lingers in Greenstone, making oddly shaped kites and sailing them from the Superior shore. His favorite kite looks like a giant dog; another is shaped like a bicycle with wheels that really spin.
But there is more to the kites than their strange appearance. Anyone – local, tourist or passerby – who takes the string and flies one of these kites will feel his worries drifting away until he’s laughing and joking with Rune – at least for the moment.
The third major character, Adam Leer, spreads no joy anywhere. Even people who knew him as a child believed that something was wrong with him. He went to Hollywood and directed a pornographic film that made him famous (or, rather, infamous), and when he returns to Greenstone, everyone he touches is destroyed or killed.
He speaks a few words into the ear of a former enemy, who dies that night in a bizarre fishing accident. He takes the hand of a merry barista, pulls her beside him and whispers into her ear. She laughs and returns to work but later drowns herself in Lake Superior. He fondles a tame raccoon “as if imparting a blessing”; the raccoon develops rabies and bites a child. And Leer was spotted swimming naked in the lake just as Rune’s son took off during his last airplane flight. Bodies and wrecked lives pile up, but what can anyone do? As Virgil says, “You can’t convict a man of a vibe.”
Virgil Wander is a natural choice for a discussion group. Plenty of questions arise, not the least of which is the identity of Adam Leer. Who or what is he? The dark incarnation of Greenstone’s bad luck? An obsessed man rebelling against his hated family and town? Or simply a blameless person – a humanitarian, even – whom Virgil’s damaged brain has conjured into an angel of death?
For that matter, how much of Virgil’s story can we believe, given that he’s suffering from a serious brain injury? What steps do the people of Greenstone take to revive their town? Is it possible that Greenstone’s reputation for bad luck can actually be the town’s salvation?
Carolyn Kane is a professor emerita of English at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She is the author of the novel Taking Jenny Home, which was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014. She lives in rural Door County, where she writes for the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Magazine.