"I Cheerfully Refuse" is a modern-day retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the musician who traveled to the underworld to rescue his wife. Set in an all-too-possible near future along Lake Superior, Leif Enger's novel — his fourth — is stunning, almost pitch-perfect, with a harrowing tale and beguiling characters.

Enger, who lives in Duluth, is the author of "Peace Like a River" and "Virgil Wander." This new book is narrated by Rainy, a bear of a man who lives with his ebullient wife Lark in a village somewhere between Duluth and Thunder Bay. Civilization is collapsing, with most money and resources swallowed up by "the astronauts" — that is, billionaires. For everyone else, society is teetering — schools have closed, the economy limps along through black markets and bartering, climate change wreaks havoc.

Impoverished people sign six-year employment contracts under the "Employees Are Heroes Act," only to find themselves serving as guinea pigs for government experiments.

"It's just the times. The times are so unfriendly," says Rainy's friend Labrino, who later partakes of a popular suicide drug called Willow. ("It isn't suicide," a character says later in the book. "It's stepping through the door. … They went in search of better.")

Lark runs a bookstore, although very few people read; Rainy plays bass in a bar band. They make a little money renting out a bedroom, which is how Kellan enters their lives. And when he does, everything falls apart.

Gawky and red-headed, Kellan is on the run for breaking his contract with the government and maybe for something worse. Weeks after his arrival, disaster ensues, and Rainy flees for his life. He is no sailor — that was always Lark's thing — but he climbs aboard a rickety sailboat called Flower and steers into a Lake Superior storm.

Along the way he picks up a stowaway, a raggedy, resourceful child called Sol, and the two become a team. Their travels on the lake make up the bulk of the narrative, and Enger's writing is at its very best here, confident and strong, with evocative descriptions of storms, water and sky.

"The northerly breeze smelled of spruce marshes and occasionally of damp smoke, which made me feel safe and fully forgotten. … Along the fifty-mile volcanic stone peninsula I saw neither roads nor buildings, no emblem of human ambition or discord. That night I slipped into a primeval cleft and anchored in water still as sky."

Rainy heads toward a place called the Slates, where he believes the line between the afterworld and natural world has thinned, and where he hopes to reconnect with Lark. But the fates have other things in mind.

Enger's tale feels uncomfortably prescient, the natural outcome of climate change, lawlessness and illiteracy. "The country had recently elected its first proudly illiterate president, A MAN UNSPOILT, as he constantly bellowed."

Yet with all its tragedy and darkness, this novel is not depressing; it feels buoyant, like Flower itself. Even when the boat ends up, as you knew it would, sailing directly toward hell, you also know that Rainy and Sol won't give up.

"I Cheerfully Refuse" is a rare, remarkable book to be kept and reread — for its beauty of language, its gentle wisdom and its steady, unflagging hope.

Laurie Hertzel, who also reviews for the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, is at lauriehertzel@gmail.com.

Where to find help

Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website, namimn.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.

I Cheerfully Refuse

By: Leif Enger.

Publisher: Grove Press, 336 pages, $28.

Event: 6 p.m. April 24, Next Chapter Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul. Free. 7 p.m. April 25, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, 301 County Road 19, Excelsior. $5 admittance can be applied to book purchase.