Minnesota novelist Enger (So Brave, Young, and Handsome, 2008, etc.) takes readers on a magical mystery tour of a fictional town on the shores of Lake Superior, near Duluth.
One of the subplots of this parable about the rebirth of both the titular narrator and his North Shore hometown concerns a minor-league prospect who had one moment of glory that he was never able to equal. An eccentric young pitcher with a fastball so uncontrollable it had its own nickname—the “Mad Mouse”—he pitched a no-hitter and then disappeared into the ether. It’s easy to read that as a metaphor for the author himself, who made a bestselling breakthrough with his debut (Peace Like a River, 2001), wasn’t able to sustain a major-league reputation with his follow-up, and has now returned with his first novel in a decade—perhaps his most ambitious. Or at least his most overstuffed. Among its elements is the first-person narrator with the portentous name who has survived a near-death experience, plunging with his car into Lake Superior. And a kite-flying Nordic codger who has come in search of the son he never knew (the disappeared pitcher). And a pet raccoon named Genghis, half-domesticated, half-feral. And a homicidal sturgeon. And the wayward son of the town founder who has become a film director of disrepute and brings ill fortune to others by his very presence. And a mythically beautiful young mother and her son, who are hoping for the return of their Odysseus (again, the disappeared pitcher) but will perhaps find new love with Virgil. And an annual festival called Hard Luck Days to which the story builds and which eventually attracts regional son Bob Dylan (who proclaims the pie he is served “better than the Nobel”). There’s also a bomb. Virgil himself provides the best summary: “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.”
Like Garrison Keillor on hallucinogens, this novel has a lot more imagination than coherence.