Ballad of beauty | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Ballad of beauty

BOOKS | Leif Enger’s latest novel makes the lyrical seem everyday

Leif Enger Handout

Ballad of beauty
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.


First there was Peace Like a River, a road book–cum–picaresque about a young boy, his sister, and their widower father as they pursue an older brother who’s been (perhaps unjustly) charged with murder. Then came So Brave, Young, and Handsome, an outlaw Western story about guilt and redemption. Then Virgil Wander, a prodigal son story in the trimmings of a memory novel. In each case, Enger imbues these books with a deep sense of melancholy. Of things long gone and largely forgotten.

Yet to claim that these books are about loss is to limit them unjustly. They are also about hope and beauty and love and faith and family. They are quest books, replete with richly drawn archetypes that lean self-consciously into the author’s affection for the elemental value of language. They’re old-fashioned novels that draw on American balladry while being born out of the tropes of ancient mythology.

Now we get I Cheerfully Refuse (Grove Press 2024), about a nearly dystopian future in which the country is on the verge of collapse, reading has been abandoned, and a malicious ruling class has emerged as an impregnable power. Yet some people are staunchly at work preserving that which is true, good, and beautiful, including a gentle giant of a musician named Rainy and his lovely bookselling wife, Lark.

Cognizant of their good fortune in the midst of a crumbling culture, Rainy and Lark live near Lake Superior in the Upper Midwest, where they rest in the warmth of their love and their quotidian pursuits when a mysterious, hangdog young stranger appears, clearly in need of a place to rest. When Rainy and Lark take him in, they become caught in the crossfire of evil interests, and Rainy returns home one day to discover that Lark has been killed and the perpetrators are after him, too. Broken-hearted, Rainy sets out in Lark’s beloved sailboat on Lake Superior with a pirate-like (and very powerful) old villain in pursuit.

The novel evolves into a retelling of the Orpheus myth, leavened with a healthy dose of the Odyssey, and told in the tradition of the American ballad with the aesthetic sensibilities of Amor Towles, whose novel A Gentleman in Moscow is so popular for its relentless charm. Indeed, Enger, like Towles, is one of those writers who make the process seem easy (though you know it’s not), as if the Leif Enger project itself is to make the lyrical seem everyday.

Enger’s books are about grief, but they are also about the life that beauty can provide if you’re brave enough to sit with it.

Like any great ballad, I Cheerfully Refuse is peopled with eccentric characters of various intentions, who seem conjured out of the mist of human grasping. Yet, like Odysseus and Don Quixote and Galahad and so many other literary sojourners, Rainy discovers that his greatest contention is not with the evils of human conjuring, but rather with a world that is at war with itself. It’s as if the waves and wind are imbued with the spirit of mythological gods contending for their various desires, while the pitiful humans are caught in the bombardment of their rage and jealousy.

Rainy’s story, then, becomes about the things that keep him keeping on—the things that give life even when they seem least likely to do so, the way even simple beauty can contend with the surrealism of evil.

As it goes on, I Cheerfully Refuse takes on a proverbial tone, and it self-consciously leans into the use of simile (seemingly an homage to Homer’s own epic similes), a feature that perhaps will irritate some readers. But the novel’s meta components are all in service of its lofty vision: that preserving the right things is an inherently hopeful act.

So, yes, Leif Enger’s books are about grief, but they are also about the life that beauty can provide if you’re brave enough to sit with it.

David Kern

David Kern and his wife, Bethany, own Goldberry Books in Concord, N.C., an indie bookstore that focuses on selling new and used books that are True, Good, and Beautiful. He’s also the co-host of Close Reads and Withywindle, two bookish podcasts, the latter of which is for kids.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...