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    Great Lakes Odyssey

    April 5, 2024  | 

    In a time of pessimism and uncertainty, storytellers have recently turned to the future to predict a grim world that yet retains flickers of light. HBO’s recent series “The Last of Us” explored the familiar terrain of the zombie apocalypse through the bond between a man and a teenager. The 2014 novel Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, suggested that global collapse cannot destroy the power of community. In Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road, a father-and-son duo traverse the bleakest of landscapes, yet find hope in the decency passed hand-to-hand by the few good souls left. McCarthy called this act of human stewardship “carrying the fire.”

    The writer Leif Enger owes a debt to both Ms. Mandel and McCarthy in his new novel, I Cheerfully Refuse. Mr. Enger would seem an unlikely contributor to the expanding shelf of postapocalyptic fiction. His three earlier books, most successfully the bestselling debut Peace Like a River, deal in gentle, nostalgic Americana, not plagues or locusts. And his new work’s title hints at more warmth yet. Yet I Cheerfully Refuse is darker than anything Mr. Enger has written to date. The novel conjures a queasy future that cannot extinguish the best in us. As readable as anything he has written, it refreshingly concerns itself less with the miraculous than with what is right before our eyes, even when we want to look away.

    The first part of the novel centers around the fictional town of Icebridge on the north shore of Lake Superior. Here, the high-latitude American cities of St. Paul, Chicago and Milwaukee are all down south. Initially the comfortable rhythms of Mr. Enger’s prior work reappear: small-town life, quirky neighbors and fellowship among friends. Yet Rainy, the middle-aged narrator, gradually reveals that society has settled into an uncertain new phase—drought is mentioned, as well as a “bronchial pandemic”—and the reader senses that for Icebridge, remoteness also means shelter. Violence and then tragedy appear, prefigured by the arrival of an outsider named Werryck whose neck bears “a troubling growth like the pad of a thumb.” At first urbane and friendly, Werryck turns out to be a canny operator who knows how to exploit lawlessness and fear.

    We follow Rainy’s journey by boat across Lake Superior as he flees danger and leaves behind his former life, bound north toward Canada. Upon viewing the great lakes in 1871, Henry James described a contradiction. “It is the sea, and yet just not the sea,” he wrote. “What meets the eye is on the ocean scale, but you feel somehow that the lake is a thing of smaller spirit.” In Mr. Enger’s hands Lake Superior becomes a character of its own: beautiful, tempestuous, a vast chasm between two nations. The farther Rainy sails, the more he misses the relative serenity of Icebridge. Books are scarce, found mainly in the “private libraries of the dead.” In his sailboat, Rainy plays his bass guitar and takes on a traveling companion, a young girl named Sol who represents both innocence lost and the future’s promise.

    In a final confrontation with Werryck, Rainy and Sol face this changed world in all its fury. Power in the United States has been divided up among a score of warlords who control shipping, water rights and private prisons. Mr. Enger, who has always been able to craft sentences of poetic force, vividly renders an “animal world with its unfurling dread and convulsive wars and fabricated certainties, and its breathtaking storms across the water.” In other places his prose shows McCarthy’s unmistakable influence. When Rainy glimpses a dreaded prison ship, he observes darkly, “It flew no flag of nation or purpose.”

    Of note is the book-within-the-book that gives Mr. Enger’s novel its title. This is a rare copy of “I Cheerfully Refuse,” a coming-of-age story that serves, for its readers, as a beacon in a shrunken world. The copy changes hands several times, and while Rainy carries it he reads aloud to Sol. She grew up without stories and is illiterate; the very concept of writing must be explained to her. “Maybe one day you will write a book,” Rainy says in the novel’s loveliest scene. “And people will read it, like I’ve been reading to you. And they will know that you were here, and a little bit about what you were like.” It is a fine idea as we look ahead: that of all the things that might well endure, the written word would top the list.

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