Virgil Wander captured me from the first three paragraphs with its wry and gentle prose. It’s narrated by the title character, Virgil Wander, who has a very contrary name for a man who stays very close to home. His home is Greenstone, a town that seems to be on the receiving end of some karmic bad joke, so much so they decide to embrace their bad fortune with a Hard Luck Days festival. There is a loving acceptance of the curmudgeons and oddballs that strikes this former Minnesotan as absolutely authentic but may seem false to someone who didn’t grow up in the kind of communities that inspired Lake Wobegon.
Virgil is suffering some dislocation from an accident that should have killed him, driving off the North Shore Highway, he and his car shooting through the air and falling deep into Lake Superior. However, he was saved and now has some trouble with adjectives and balance. The serendipitous arrival of Rune, the unknown father of Alec Sandstrom, local baseball hero whose mysterious disappearance haunts Greenstone and its inhabitants. Alec was Virgil’s friend and since he really needs someone to stay with him in his forgetfulness, he invites Rune to stay with him.
This is a magical realist book. The realism is the slowly dying Greenstone, the impoverishment of failed industry, and how that breakdown manifests in people’s lives, their despair and desperation. The magic is manifested in Rune and his kites, the giant sturgeon who seems an active and knowing antagonist, the strangely malevolent Adam Leer who doesn’t overtly do or say anything untoward while leaving disaster in his wake.
I enjoyed Virgil Wander so much, though when I think on it after finishing, I realize that I loved it because I fell for the characters, especially for Virgil, Rune, and Bjorn, Rune’s grandson, and the wryly evocative language. In hindsight, the story is very much on the surface, sliding past being consequential with a smile. Usually, with so much talent and imagination, there’s a deeper story to tell. This is not deep, but it sure is fun.
I received a copy of Virgil Wander from the publisher through NetGalley.