Leif Enger isn’t in a hurry. His acclaimed first novel, “Peace Like a River,” was published in 2001. His next, “So Brave, Young, and Handsome,” came out in 2008 and was also well received. Now, he returns with “Virgil Wander.” The new book was worth the wait.
Despite his evocative name, the title character of the novel isn’t much given to wandering. Instead, he is the caretaker of an old movie theater in a small town on the banks of Lake Superior. The book opens with his recounting of his narrow escape from death after his car plunges into the lake. His slow recovery makes him something of a stranger to himself — just as things in his community are getting stranger, too.
“Virgil Wander” unfolds at a leisurely pace — more evidence of Enger’s patience — and there is something like comfort and grace in Virgil’s story of family and community faced with mysterious malevolence and healed by equally mysterious solace.
Virgil’s narrative voice is one of the book’s many pleasures. Here, he describes one of the many unusual occurrences in his town:
“Maybe you’ve heard of our frog monsoon, a true story. It wasn’t just a frog here and there tumbling out of the sky — this was thousands of frogs, raining down from a dense black cloud. I’d just wrapped up a matinee and was cruising over to World’s Best Donuts when the frogs started hitting the pavement, mostly small brown specimens and a few greens. Some atomized on contact, others bounced and lay still. A few survivors hopped blindly in circles while overjoyed seagulls picked them off. The frogs received a neat riff on Letterman but were no joke on Main Street where they hydroplaned vehicles.”
This may not seem like a moment from a contemplative, comforting novel, but “Virgil Wander” is just that. Enger’s storytelling instincts apparently can’t be rushed, but we should be grateful each time he returns to spin another tale.