By the time Leif Enger reached Duluth, the rain had stopped and the dark clouds were beginning to part. As he crested Thompson Hill, he looked down and saw, for the first time, “lovely, forbidding” Lake Superior, its vast surface a choppy gray and green.
“I just thought: ‘My word, how have I not known about this?’ ” he said. “I had no idea. I just had no idea.”
Enger grew up in Osakis, in central Minnesota, and he had always looked west — toward Fargo-Moorhead, where he went to college, and toward North Dakota, where his parents grew up.
“We didn’t ever go the other direction,” he said. “I knew from maps there was a big lake. But it just didn’t seem real to me.”
But after that first glimpse of the lake 30 years ago, he started heading east, to Superior’s North Shore, every chance he got.
“Every time, I would think, ‘How can I move here? How can I live by this sea?’ ”
It took decades, but he has done it, setting his new novel up the shore and moving this summer with his wife, Robin, to a comfortable old house in Duluth with a big front porch. They felt at home there immediately, waking up each morning to the crows talking in the treetops and the foghorn bleating over the lake; heading to Bayfield, Wis., to sail their boat; walking in the evenings along the city’s creeks and ravines.
“So far I really like being an urban creature,” Enger said, sipping coffee at his kitchen table. The back door was open to the misty late August morning, and the last of the rain dripped from the eaves. “And how urban can it be? The other night we went down the alleyway and there were two fawns and a doe.”
His new novel, “Virgil Wander,” will be published next week. Unlike his first two novels, which were family sagas set in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, this new book reflects Enger’s new life: It is about a town, not a family, and it is set along the North Shore.
Enger, 57, will launch “Virgil Wander” at Zenith Bookstore in Duluth on Oct. 2 and will speak at Talking Volumes Oct. 3 at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
“Virgil Wander” is a wondrous tall tale of a novel about the rebirth of a man and a town, both down on their luck. It is rich with allusions to the classic stories and myths that Enger grew up reading and is built around passions he has nurtured most of his life: old movie theaters, kite flying, friendships and family, small towns.
And Lake Superior. There would be no book without Lake Superior.
And even with the lake, there almost was no book.
Starry nights, lots of quiet
Leif met Robin, a slender, gregarious quilt-maker, at Moorhead State. They married at 20, had two sons, and eventually moved to a house on 45 acres outside Aitkin, where they lived for 21 years.
“I had been raised in the country, and I wanted some country for the kids,” Enger said. “I had no idea we would stay that long.”
He took a job with Minnesota Public Radio in Bemidji (he has a smooth, soothing radio voice and speaks eloquently, in entire paragraphs), and he built a writing loft above the barn. Every morning, from 5 to 7 a.m., he wrote before heading to work.
The farm was a beautiful place to raise their sons, Enger said, with starry nights and hay fields and horses and crows. The house was on a dead-end road, so remote they couldn’t see their nearest neighbors. On summer days when the clouds were big and the breeze was right, Enger would head outside with one of his kites.
“What I love about them is the way they just sort of disconnect you from everything,” he said. “They just unhook your imagination. I can easily lose an afternoon just flying a kite.”
But after their sons, Ty and John, were grown and gone, “At some point your place goes from being charmingly remote to being isolated.”
About the time he and Robin started talking about moving into a city, their parents began growing frail. Robin’s parents moved to nearby Crosby. Leif’s elderly parents were two hours away in Osakis. Now was not the time to leave.
Besides, he was working on a new book.
Getting past ‘Peace’
Enger’s debut novel, “Peace Like a River,” was a stupendous opening act, but it was also a hard act to follow. It debuted as a Book of the Month Club selection with a first printing of 100,000 copies.
The novel was published on Sept. 11, 2001, and while the events of that date spelled doom for many novels, “Peace” became a book that America wanted to read during that dark time, a novel of faith and miracles. Told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy named Reuben, it is the story of the Land family, who travel across North Dakota in the 1960s in search of Reuben’s brother.
“The book was a balm. The title was a balm,” said Enger’s agent, Molly Friedrich, whose New York City agency has handled all three of his novels. “It was what America needed.”
The money from “Peace” allowed Enger to quit MPR and write full time. It took seven years to publish his second novel — “So Brave, Young, and Handsome,” also a bestseller — and then 10 more for “Virgil Wander.”
“I would love to be a fast writer who can kick out a really good novel every year, every 18 months,” Enger said. But sometimes a book “has to stew for a long time.”
“Virgil Wander” was a long, slow simmer.
Enger knew what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find the right voice. “You have to have the right voice or the book is doomed,” he said. “And I didn’t have Virgil.”
He spent five years working on the first iteration of the book.
“I wrote the whole thing,” he said. “I liked things about it, and I read big chunks of it to Robin. But I didn’t read her the chunks I didn’t believe in. And in the end, they constituted more of the book than the parts I did believe in, and in the end I threw the whole thing away.
“It was incredibly painful. It was a desperate thing to do. I knew it was a bad book, and that was a horrifying thought.
“So I pressed delete.”
Being the kite
The hardest thing, Enger said, was telling Robin.
“She was so cool about it. She said, ‘Whatever you have to do. But this time, just swing for the fences. Just set yourself free. Just be the kite.’ And I tried to do that. It was good advice.”
Enger is careful when he talks about this difficult time.
“I don’t want to get too far into this because my troubles are nothing,” he said. “They’re nothing. But when you have four beloved parents, and they all die at the same time, and you’ve also realized that you have to throw away 400 pages of material because it isn’t very good, you start to spend a lot of time up at night.
“I would wake every night at 2:30 or 3 or so and I would turn to books, mostly novels, that reminded me of what was best about the world.”
In the dark of 3 a.m., he read for hours. Anne Tyler. Nick Hornby. Michael Chabon. Herman Melville. He read Larry McMurtry, and the essays of Montaigne.
“Those are writers I really admire, and whose outlook might not always be optimistic but who gave me optimism,” he said. “All of that stuff just lifted my spirits. And before I knew it, it would be 5:30 or 6 and I’d hear the crows. And then it was time to get up and work.”
At some point, Virgil’s voice came to him. “But it arrived maybe because I had struggled to write this whole draft,” Enger said.
“Virgil Wander” is told in first person. It opens with the title character sliding off a snowy Hwy. 61 in his Pontiac and plunging into Lake Superior.
“That plunge sets the whole thing in motion,” Enger said. “It damages Virgil in a way that is liberating. I like stories that start with reality and then lift off.”
And lift off “Virgil Wander” does, with myths and magical realism and a gigantic sturgeon and a legendary ballplayer who once pitched a perfect game at Wade Stadium in Duluth and then later vanished into the clouds in his one-man plane.
The novel is set in the fictional town of Greenstone. (“I’m picturing it if you go up beyond Silver Bay a little ways, but not too far,” Enger said.)
As Virgil and Greenstone are both slowly reborn, the tale meanders through a cast of spectacularly named characters, each with a back story and a legend: Rune, the mysterious stranger from Norway who flies elaborate, gravity-defying kites. Galen Pea, the 10-year-old boy determined to catch the mammoth sturgeon that killed his father. Jerry Fandeen, down and out, rejected by his wife, who finds a new lease on life in the most explosive way possible. Adam Leer, the sinister rich man who just happens to be nearby whenever something terrible happens.
It’s not hard to pick up at least some of the allusions in “Virgil Wander” — the sturgeon as Moby-Dick, perhaps. But the book can be read either way. Enger says he didn’t intentionally write in the myths, they’re just part of who he is and how he thinks.
“Maybe it’s just from all of those Classics Illustrated comics. Remember those?” He and his older brother, Lin, who is also a novelist, grew up reading them. “It’s not like we were a super literate family; we were just a regular family in the 1960s in middle America, and people knew about Robin Hood and they could talk about ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ ”
Myths, he said, are part of every town’s culture. “In every small town I’ve lived in, the town has its war heroes and its Boo Radleys and its crazed guys who go tearing across the ice in a car in late November. I think what’s natural when you are writing is to use the local myths and combine them with the big myths that you remember from as long as you have had a memory.”
In the early stages of the novel, Enger worked most days until early afternoon. But when he was about three-quarters done, he might not call it a day until 8 at night. That ebullient feeling — when the book is nearing conclusion and he knows where it’s going — is like no other, he said.
“Finishing a book is like coming on a wave,” he said. “You’re standing there in the surf, and the suds are all around you, just roiling, and there’s this foam of ideas and life and energy. That’s why you do it; you do it for the surf.”
As he neared the end of “Virgil Wander,” he had a conversation with his son, Ty. “He said, ‘What are you doing with the ending?’
“It was late in the game and I was surfing by then, so I was feeling pretty good about it. And I said, man, I’m going really unfashionable. I’m going with the happy ending. The ending that I need, that I kind of deserve after the last few years.
“And he said, ‘You know what? Right now is not a bad time for a happy ending.’ ”