In one sense, Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier is a very recognizable novel—the ingenue in the new wilderness, trying to make sense of, and being buffeted about by, this brave new world. But Heroes is also a uniquely modern take on the old frontier genre: It is a fable without a moral, a pilgrim without progress, a series of adventures and nothing to be made of them. There are some real pleasures here but, for me, this book is interesting as much for what it includes as for what it leaves out.
Josie, our heroine, is a likable but somewhat unfocused 30-something mother of two. Recently left by the feckless father of her children, and having also just lost her dental practice to a vindictive patient, she decides to flee the oppression of her present life in suburban Ohio and light out for the territory—which, for us modern Americans, can only mean Alaska. And so she does. With initially abundant but soon dwindling cash in a pouch (no credit cards, no phone, so as not to be traceable), she and her children soon find themselves in a scarily ancient RV, swaying unsteadily down the roads of Alaska, the smoke from forest fires darkening the sky, trying to make sense of it all. (And, of course, find happiness, or something, along the way.)
It’s a good conceit for one of Eggers’s recurring interests: the distinctive forms narcissism and craziness take in contemporary America, and particularly in the first half of the book, Josie handily helps Eggers out by interacting with an array of over-the-top characters. The men she meets are invariably goofy, inexplicably confident, losers or dangerously violent when provoked (and sadly, Josie does do some provoking). The only other woman character of any substance, a sort of half sister Josie visits in Homer, Alaska, is a pastiche of the new suburban smugness and, as a night out in the local bar reveals, sexual depravity.
In the second half of the book, Eggers switches gears, and the kookiness, or nastiness, of others drops out as a central theme. Instead, Josie and her children face a series of distinctively natural challenges—the last, the climax of the book, very well done, and genuinely quite frightening. Unlucky to have stumbled into the storm that they have, lucky to find what they find, the book closes with them feeling a kind of peace. They bask in their courage, their pluck, and revel at what they have managed to do. They are, it seems, true contemporary heroes of the frontier.
Eggers is a remarkably intelligent writer (a staggering genius, one might say), and he offers many shrewd observations amid the caricature. In one episode on a cruise ship, a man with perfect zip-code recall utterly amazes and enthralls his audience; I can think of no better illustration of the sheer childishness that lies behind our prosperity in contemporary American fiction. And in Eggers’s portrayal of violence, whether at the hands of man or nature, he can be chilling, almost cinematic.
Unfortunately, Eggers seems fundamentally uninterested in his protagonist, and is content to leave her as we first find her—well meaning, not too smart, and utterly passive. Josie does have her moments of self-vindication, however. She learns what Eggers clearly wants us to feel: That we all have reserves of strength we may be unaware of given the crushing routines of our lives. But what these qualities are best used for—what follows when we think about these terrible, sometimes near-fatal mistakes on one hand, happy accidents on the other—Eggers, it seems, like Josie, hasn’t a clue.