Book Buzz: I Cheerfully Refuse

I Cheerfully Refuse by Leif Enger

Against the backdrop of a dystopian landscape in a climate-changed near future, “I Cheerfully Refuse” by Leif Enger tells the story of Rainy, a gentle bear of a man, house painter and aspiring bass player, as he seeks redemption after the loss of his beloved wife, Lark.

Setting sail on Lake Superior in a hand-me-down sailboat named Flower, Rainy points the bow for the Slate Islands where he and Lark once shared happy times. On the journey, he encounters raging storms, shipwrecked corpses rising from the depths due to warming temperatures, and towns of desperate, fearful people Rainy must decide whether to trust. He also gains an unexpected companion in the form of a plucky young girl who stows away on Flower to escape an abusive home situation.

In this near-future world, the economy, mineral rights, satellites, news “factories,” clean water, prisons and shipping are controlled by a billionaire class of a handful of families. Goods are in short supply; communities fare better where people share resources and treat each other with kindness and respect.

Rainy said of the small, rural Minnesota community he and Lark call home, “We understood the margins where we lived. Some still enjoyed resenting the far-flung coasts for their gleam and influence, but I think we all accepted the grace of the overlooked.”

Lark is a lively, vivacious librarian turned bookstore owner, and Rainy, never a big reader, becomes smitten with her. He is inspired to read “Beowulf” and “Moby Dick” and “Don Quixote” to impress her. In fact, Lark finds Rainy to be somewhat quixotic himself — to which Rainy responds, “I felt flattered at the comparison to the resolute madman whose eyes saw noble steeds, not nags, and glory, not manure.”

This comparison gets to the true heart of the novel, the question Leif Enger said inspired him to write it: How do basically good and decent people get through bleak, dark times without stooping to our darker natures? Rainy ruminated, “What scares me is the notion we’re all one rotten moment, one crushed hope or hollow stomach, from stuffing someone blameless in a cage.”

Rainy often turns to music as a defense against despair, much as Orpheus played his way into the underworld to attempt Eurydice’s rescue. His five-string Fender jazz bass entertains and comforts fellow travelers, and is even used as currency (both the music and the bass itself) to buy freedom.

While “I Cheerfully Refuse” is described as a dystopian novel, Enger points out that it differs in one important aspect. Most dystopian novels are set into motion by something people have no control over, like asteroids crashing into Earth or a pandemic. In this book, Enger says he wanted to explore the “skewed world that we could vote ourselves into” — waking up one day years later to realize that a handful of billionaires control all the wealth, the infrastructure in most of the country is crumbling and detractors to the ruling class may end up in work camps with no rule of law ensuring them fair trial.

Enger is a master storyteller, his voice rich with a Midwestern wit and sensibility, and his stories have a mythic “everyman” quality replete with daring adventure and an element of romance (boats also often feature prominently). His debut novel, “Peace Like a River,” is a classic book club title. I confess that I finished reading “I Cheerfully Refuse” and missed the characters so much, that I immediately started over by listening to the audiobook, excellently brought to life by narrator David Aaron Baker.

“I Cheerfully Refuse” is not-to-miss summer reading at its best. As a bonus, you can kick off your summer reading list by getting a signed copy and hearing Leif Enger speak about writing “I Cheerfully Refuse” at the Village Books in Fairhaven event on Friday, June 14 at 6 p.m. Info:

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for the Whatcom County Library System,

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Saturday, June 8, 2024.)