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Book excerpt: “I Cheerfully Refuse” by Leif Enger

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Book excerpt: “I Cheerfully Refuse” by Leif Enger

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Grove Press


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Leif Enger, the award-winning author of “Peace Like a River,” returns with a strange, alluring novel, “I Cheerfully Refuse” (Grove Press), set in a world burning up and going mad.

Read an excerpt below. 


“I Cheerfully Refuse” by Leif Enger

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Back inside Lark picked up the paper bag she’d carried in earlier, holding it close to her chest as though what it contained were embarrassingly lavish. Clearly drawing out the pleasure of reveal she said, “We have a boarder coming tonight. We’ll have to get the room ready.”

We had a third-floor attic that was sometimes for rent. It wasn’t much—a bed in a gable with a half bath. Mostly it lay vacant. Not for lack of travelers—pitted and hazardous as the highway had become, a lot of people were on it. Nearly all were heading north and keeping quiet. So we were careful about our attic. Yet we were also, as Lark liked to whisper in the dark, quixotes, by which she meant not always sensible. Open to the wondrous. Curious in the manner of those lucky so far.

I said, “You seem pleased about this boarder. Somebody we know?”

“It’s not who he is. It’s what he brought.” And she reached in the bag and pulled out—slowly, with glittering eyes—a book, or rather a bound galley, an advance copy produced for reviewers. It was beat-up and wavy with ancient humidity, blue cardstock cover flaking badly. Printed in fading black was its title: I Cheerfully Refuse.

“You can’t be serious.”

Lark laughed. It was her habit when delighted to rise lightly on tiptoe as if forgotten by gravity. I Cheerfully Refuse was the personal grail of my bookseller wife, the nearly but never published final offering of the poet, farmer, and some said eremite Molly Thorn, a woman of the middle twentieth. Molly lived many lives. Essayist, throwback deviser of rhyming verse, chronicler of vanished songbirds, author of a single incendiary novel in which the outlaw protagonist speaks in couplets and occasional quatrains. Lark said she was a cult author before they became the only kind.

“He had this galley copy with him,” she said now. “Kellan, I mean, the new boarder. He came in the store with a little stack of titles. What are the chances?”

“How long have you looked for that book?”

“Since I was twelve.” By then Lark had read everything else of Molly Thorn’s thanks to her mother, a profligate reader and purveyor of impertinent ideas.

“Have you already finished it?”

“Haven’t started even.” She was up on her toes again. “Rainy?”

“Yes?”

“You want to read it first?”

I hesitated. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it at all.

“I know, me too,” she said. “I’m almost afraid to open it.”

We went to the attic and put sheets on the bed and two heavy quilts against the draft. Swept the room though it was neat. While we worked Lark told me Kellan was young and scrawny, with concave limbs and a red rooster comb for hair. She said, “You’re going to notice his hand.”

“His hand.”

She described a mottled claw burnt to ruin. Glossy and immobile, it got your attention.

“This Kellan, is he a squelette?”

The term, French for skeleton, was popularized a decade earlier when a dozen Michigan laborers seemed to vanish. It happened at a factory like many others, manufacturing drone rotors and home-security mines on the west Huron shore—night shift, dirty weather, they stepped out for a smoke and never came back.

     
Excerpted from “I Cheerfully Refuse” by Leif Enger © 2024 by Reuben Land Corporation. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.


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“I Cheerfully Refuse” by Leif Enger

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