This quiet, gentle story is remarkable for the artistry of it words, the realistically oddball characters, and its touch of Northwoods magic realism. The main character, Virgil Wander, almost drowns when his car slides off the road and into Lake Superior. The accident damages his brain and, as a result, he quietly and gradually reinvents himself, leaving behind his hesitant, staid self—the “former occupant” of his apartment, clothes, and life. In his place is a man willing to take a few risks.
Comparing his flight into the lake with his new life, he says:
“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 owns a down-on-its-luck movie theatre, the Empress, and is also Greenstone’s city clerk. (When he explains this latter job, he addresses the reader directly asking, “Did you think I made a living at the Empress?” It’s a delightfully engaging moment.)
After his plunge into the lake, Virgil has a unique mental quirk: He cannot remember adjectives. But no matter, Enger demonstrates the power of all parts of speech, in quote-worthy paragraph after paragraph, as Virgil creates a new life from the leftovers of his old one. The language alone makes the book a wonder to read.
For example, when Virgil first meets the mystical Rune, he describes how the old man smoked his pipe: “The smoke ghosted straight up and hung there undecided.” Who needs fancy adjectives when you can create an image so economically and so powerfully?
And when Virgil finds the ominous Adam Leer burning clothes behind his house, he again evokes the smoke-in-need-of-direction image, this time using an adjective in a way that makes the reader wonder why other writers haven’t used this description: “Tendrils of tea-colored smoke uncurled to explore the immediate region.”
Some lines are laugh-out-loud funny, as when Virgil observes, “The evidence of my life lay before me, and I was unconvinced.”
Virgil, who narrates the book, introduces us to his community in the bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, north of Duluth. Residents have landed there by chance, as Virgil did, lured by a lake view and cheap real estate; others were born there, as was the mysterious and sinister Leer; and then there’s the elfin Rune, who shows up on the shore of Lake Superior flying kites.
But these are no ordinary kites—they’re so mystical that people passing by stop and wait their turns to fly the giant dog, or the bike with wheels that turn, a burning fireplace, or even an anvil. Rune is in town looking for stories of his son Alec, whom he never met, and who flew out over Lake Superior one day in a tiny old plane, never to return. Nadine, Alec’s widow, takes over his neon sign business, creating pieces of art she sells nationally; Virgil loves her from afar, assuming he has no chance with her, until he does. When the two finally connect, he observes, “She kept looking away then back to me, as though at a nice surprise. This was maybe best of all. I never once expected to be someone’s nice surprise.”
Two fatherless boys, Bjorn and Galen, help pull Virgil toward himself and away from the previous tenant, aided by Ann and Jerry, married but not really, who are trying to move beyond the margins of their lives. Then there’s a giant sturgeon, a bomb, a festival called Hard Luck Days, and a cameo by Bob Dylan, who wrote a song about Greenstone, but Virgil can’t remember which one. And a priceless set of old movie reels Virgil refers to as imps in a jar, and which get the Empress a new roof.
Like the kites, the characters’ lives move with slow precision and eventually reach a conclusion that ties the story lines and loose strings together. A few bits are left hanging (What actually did happen to Leer?) and some are tied up with a bit of sadness (Jerry’s luck gets harder, although he might have left the city better off).
Toward the end of the book, the community comes together for Virgil, who does not expect it, and he says, poignantly, “Your tribe is always bigger than you think.”
At the very end, in Rune’s city of Tromsø, Norway, Nadine and Virgil face an unknown future, but with a fresh outlook that mirrors the theme of the book: “We all dream of finding but what’s wrong with looking? When the sun rises we’ll know what to do.”