Leif Enger’s debut novel, PEACE LIKE A RIVER, has a single page that has left me leveled for the past 10 years. So like other PEACE devotees, I snapped up Enger’s latest work, VIRGIL WANDER, wondering if he could do it again. Let’s just cut to the chase. If you liked GARP, grab a hot chocolate, your favorite blanket, and hunker down for the latest snowstorm.
A man is driving down a highway by a river in the frigid upper Midwest. His car flies off the side of the road and its occupant is suspended in midair, time, and the particulars of his life, until he is pulled from the icy waters by a passing resident of his curious town. That’s the set-up for this slice of life, or fable, or perhaps deeper treatise on the way humans bump and bang against one another in an America that feels both lost and found.
VIRGIL WANDER has elements of some of Chad Harbach’s stunning THE ART OF FIELDING and I would love to have drinks with Enger and Larry McMurtry – another master of small-town life. But what defines VIRGIL WANDER – the book and the character – is Enger’s surgeon-like mastery of the English language. My wife would look up from her book and see me staring into space and ask, “What’s wrong?” And I’d reply, “I just read the most incredible sentence. I don’t know if I can go on.”
There is a page-turning tale, a colorful cast of characters and plenty of Main Street shenanigans to keep you flipping along. But as in PEACE LIKE A RIVER, Mr. Enger ropes you in by taking ordinary people and placing them in extra-ordinary circumstances. A man flies off a snow-covered road and everything changes. I walked away charmed, energized, and asking all the existential questions. I’m still looking for the answers.