I always wanted to live in the apartment above The Watson Theater in my hometown. I recently discovered it’s been renovated, but I won’t be moving soon. Watsontown, like many American small towns, is no longer lived in, shopped in, or played in as it once was.
Leif Enger invokes a similar nostalgia (or may I call it grief?) over his upbringing on the Great Lakes in his enchanting novel Virgil Wander. His fictional town of Greenstone, MN also has a theater on Main Street where the protagonist, Mr. Virgil Wander, lives. Virgil nearly dies – "my heartbroken Pontiac breached a safety barrier and made a long, lovely, some might say cinematic arc into the churning lake" – and returns to The Empress amidst economic decay, cultural stagnation, and characters scratching existential itches.
The setting is evocative, if underwhelming. Town life goes nowhere fast, but Enger paints scenes of warm movie nights with friends around food and dream-like, meditative kite-flying sessions over Lake Superior helmed by a mysterious Finn named Rune. No wonder I couldn’t put it down.