I started reading Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander yesterday. As expected, I got ambushed and clobbered by brilliant prose, and woke up groggy several hours later, with my face in the book pages, amazed that I was unconscious to the world for how long??
I’ve read all of Enger’s previous books in order of publication — not hard to do, since there are only two of them. It’s fascinating to track the growth of a writer through the voices of his books. Peace Like A River is like a spark of fire, and has the sound of youth: bursting with energy and superlatives, plumbing the heights and depths of emotion. It’s brilliant in the sense that light is brilliant and blinding. I got swept up in its ferocious passion, and love it for that.
So Brave, Young, and Handsome seems like a classic sophomore case. It feels more hesitant, as if now uncertain of its voice, and the fiery spark that animated Peace seemed almost quenched. Enger’s prose is still lovely and his characters are more poignantly drawn, but somehow the turns of phrase and imagery don’t glisten like they did, and this second novel doesn’t quite reach the heights of brilliance of the first. Yet, I sense that the prose of So Brave is starting to move in a different direction, as if it’s departing from the sources that animated Peace and reaching toward a new source or quality of prose, whatever that is. This second novel mostly falls short, although it sometimes enters that new source. While I thought So Brave was inferior to Peace, those moments of mastery encouraged me: Enger isn’t trying to recapture the past, but trying something new in his prose. (To be honest, I don’t think any author can ever quite recapture the spark of a first novel, and it’s futile to attempt.)
And Virgil Wander… Enger’s third novel successfully reaches those heights. That ‘spark’ is back, but it looks different. It’s still passionate, though not the fiery passion of Peace, and it feels more settled and matured. Imagery and narrative glisten again, this time with more texture and complexity. And Virgil has something that the previous novels didn’t: a settled confidence that comes with experience and mastery of voice. The prose has control and precision that Peace didn’t have (and instead made up with passion) and So Brave was starting to reach for.
Have you read an author who manages to pack so much imagery and emotion into so few words? Enger writes two sentences of less than ten words, or a two-line paragraph — and they paint a lush landscape in my mind, or evoke so many feelings of longing and wonder in me. It’s amazing. All his novels contain such turns of phrase, and they are the most precise and concentrated in Virgil Wander.
It’s been more than a decade since I last read or thought of John Steinbeck, but I think Enger gives life to his characters in Virgil Wander in similar ways as Steinbeck enlivens the cast of Cannery Row (my favourite of his stories) and The Grapes of Wrath. Both authors have a way of drawing highly-textured, full-bodied characters in a single sentence. Main characters or bit players, they all spring off the page fully alive and with a sense of weight and history. And I think there are similarities between Enger and Steinbeck beyond characterization. Both have a whimsical knack for characterizing animals — simultaneously anthropomorphizing them while preserving their animal natures. Both authors write with a strong sense of place, a deep embedding of the American person in their parts of America. They address universals by getting into minute specifics of place and person. (For the record, I stole this from Russell Moore’s interview with Enger.) And finally, it’s hard to describe, but it’s like both authors are pointing out the same kind of universal truth to me and evoking the same kinds of feelings in me. The melancholy sorrow and numinous longing for beauty I felt when reading Steinbeck, I also feel when reading Enger.
Leif Enger’s prose is so simple, yet profound. I want to write like him when I grow up.
I’m not finished with Virgil Wander yet, and I’m caught in the delightful position of simultaneously wanting to swallow it whole and savour every sentence. This is Enger’s best novel to date, and I look forward to being ambushed again the next time I pick it up.