Virgil Wander, the titular narrator of the novel, lives in the quaint, rustic, town of Greenstone, Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior. By day, he serves as the city clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. He describes himself as “cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.” But Virgil’s peaceful ordinariness is interrupted in the opening pages when he loses control of his car on a snowy day, sails over the guardrail, and plunges into Lake Superior. Saved by the local junkman, who luckily saw the accident, Virgil awakens in the hospital with a “mild traumatic brain injury” that affects his memory and vocabulary.
After his near-death experience, Virgil embarks on a journey of rediscovery through interactions with fellow townspeople, each of whom are engaged in their own respective journeys. There’s Rune, the genial Norwegian kite-maker who is in town seeking information about his deceased son, Alec Sandstrom, whose disappearance is central to Greenstone lore. Alec was a minor-league baseball prospect who had one moment of glory that he was never able to repeat. An eccentric young pitcher with a fastball so uncontrollable it had its own nickname—the “Mad Mouse”—he pitched a no-hitter and soon after flew an airplane out over Lake Superior and disappeared. Neither plane wreckage nor a body were ever found. Nadine is Alec’s widow, whom Virgil not so secretly pines for. Nadine’s son, Bjorn, seeks to both engage with and escape from his father’s memory.
I think the two main themes of the novel are “living with the unknown” (fate is fickle) and “second chances”. Virgil sums it up “Why am I still surprised when it turns out there is more to the story?…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.” The characters are living with the unknowns of the past, present and future. The town may never know whether Alec is dead or off living a new life somewhere. “Stuff” happens at any time out of the blue: Virgil’s car flys into Lake Michigan, Rune finds out he had a son only after the disappearance, a local father is found dead after ice-fishing, a seemingly harmless handyman is planning a terrorist attack. And then, randomly, some people get second chances while others don’t: but for a quirky happenstance that the junkman was out in the storm, Virgil would have died; both of Virgil’s parents died in a train accident while on a trip Virgil at the last minute opted out of; Rune is electrocuted when his kite hits an electric wire – he survives; Nadine gets to move on only after choosing to believe Alec is dead.
Overall, Virgil Wander is a fast-paced, humorous and mystical novel about hope, friendship, love and the relationship between a town and its people.
Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, November 4. Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.