Leif Enger’s latest could easily veer into saccharine territory. It’s an endearing yarn, set in a sleepy town near Lake Superior, inhabited by a quirky cast of characters. But you quickly discover that all is not quiet on the Midwestern front: The town is in decline; the novel’s namesake, a moviehouse owner, has just been in a harrowing car crash; an enigmatic kite enthusiast arrives, searching for his missing son; and, unbeknownst to all, a heartbroken handyman has embarked on a sinister project….Not everyone’s story has a happy ending, but Virgil Wander reminds us that there is hope, that small acts of kindness aren’t small at all and—coupled with the contagious joy of flying a kite—they have the power to turn a flagging town’s frown upside down. Here, Leif Enger writes about the inspiration behind one of our favorite novels of the year.
The movie theater in Osakis, Minnesota, was a mainstreet single-screener called the Empress. It was demolished in 2004; the last picture I saw there was a 1975 Disney adventure called The Land That Time Forgot. It may have had dinosaurs. I know it had Doug McClure. Despite these attractions, the Empress was staggering. The auditorium had a manky smell and desolate atmosphere. The walls felt damp. Also you couldn’t trust the seats – some of them would snap shut on you, others concealed sharp unfastened springs that corksrewed upward as you gave your weight to the cushion.
Yet a trip to the Empress thrilled me to the bone. A twilit expectancy took hold at the lobby doors, partly because it was the rare outing connected to neither school nor church; Mom and Dad resented Hollywood for its advancement of cleavage, so to me any moviehouse visit was joyfully dodgy. But beyond that lay a feeling I couldn’t have described then – a sense of widening or coming awake, the way you might feel stepping on a train at dusk, not knowing its destination. At ten I wanted to own the Empress. Why not? The lucky owner, I figured, must feel that excitement all the time.
In 1992, Robin and I went to visit her parents in Florida. They lived in the flat sandy center of the state, near pine woodlots and orange groves, with small towns along the highway and vendors selling citrus out of roadside stands. One night my in-laws offered to watch the kids, so we drove to a nearby community and found the local moviehouse. It was showing White Men Can’t Jump. I don’t really remember the film, but have never forgotten the theater. It was small and unimpressive, like the Empress; it had a small art-deco marquee with broken neon, and inside that familiar mossy smell, with yellow tape roping off a soft spot in the lobby floor where the owner was doing repairs.
He turned out – the owner – to be a young man about my age. A pale blue-stubbled specimen with fiery eyes. He’d recently bought the place and was renovating it on his own. He made the popcorn and sold the tickets; he ran the projection booth and vacuumed the aisles after showings. Before starting the picture, he went down front and stood before the screen. Rubbing his hands together in the fashion of zealots and madmen he leaned toward us. His head came forward on his shoulders; his face tilted in owlish curiosity; his voice, when it emerged, was low and somehow electric.
“Welcome to my theater,” he said.
There followed a short passionate statement of mission. The lobby floor repair was nearly complete, awaiting the arrival of carpet. Meantime he was replacing the seats – himself, with a wrench – four seats at a throw, as profits allowed. When that was finished he meant to re-roof the auditorium, which sometimes leaked in a storm. He spoke all these things with utter confidence and generosity; the subtext, in my undeniably romanticized memory, was an unshakable faith that his moviehouse would be a refuge of delight and civility. It was as though he knew what we needed – movies, to be sure, but also just a place to get out of the Florida sun on a Saturday afternoon, and maybe also the undemanding company of gathered strangers. It was as though he wanted to heal us all.
He finished with a quick introduction to the movie, then climbed to the projection booth and dimmed the lights. We blinked and quieted ourselves; we directed our attention to the screen. Until the moment the picture began, the whole enterprise felt less like entertainment than sacrament.
After Virgil Wander was published I received an email from an old friend. We hadn’t kept up after high school, so I was surprised to hear from him. He said it had been his boyhood dream to buy the Empress Theater – he was saddened when he learned it was lost. His note evoked the sense of transport or outward expansion a moviehouse still provides. To be sure, it’s not the only source; I get a similar lift from flying a kite, or the sight of icy Lake Superior smoking in its bed, or from opening a new book from a favorite author. In some ways, though, I never stopped wanting an Empress of my own – and now, in a way, I’ve got one.