In Dave Eggers’s latest novel Heroes of the Frontier Josie is a sort-of retired dentist from Ohio and single mother of two whose life has been turned upside down and inside out through a sequence of upheavals both heartbreaking and hysterical. Her dental practice has been all but destroyed through a lawsuit in which an elderly woman claimed that Josie had not spotted the cancer that ultimately killed her. The father of her children, a man named Carl who thrives on responsibility avoidance by living in a state of perpetual adolescence, has left her for another woman in Florida. Other less consequential sorrows and frustrations mark Josie’s past. So Josie sets out on a journey in the wake of these events. She sells the forlorn remains of her dental practice, puts all her money in cash in a velvet bag and spirits her children away to Alaska, where she rents an RV called the Chateau and drives aimlessly around. Josie has never been to Alaska, nor ever driven an RV, and adventures follow.
Josie has much to be jaundiced and cynical about, and it’s not hard to see why a woman in her position would cast aside the hypocrisy and greed that destroyed her dental practice, as well as Carl’s chronic immaturity, to embark on an adventure in an unknown place where no one can track her down. She is running away from everything that has disgusted and annoyed her and let her down. She is ready to be if not a completely free spirit then at least a freer spirit and blaze a new path in life where she can look after her own happiness and the welfare of her children without the meddling of people who try to rip her off, or those like Carl who just don’t have it all together. The reader’s sympathies are with her right from the start.
Given Josie’s life story, the idea of her taking her two young children on an aimless road trip around the remoteness of Alaska in an RV she barely knows how to operate immediately strikes the reader as more than a touch reckless, if not insane. But Josie is a devoted mother. She loves her children dearly and looks after them. Wherever Josie may be going and whatever she may be running away from, she wants her children with her and their welfare is something she constantly frets about.
The two children themselves are endlessly endearing. Paul, a boy of eight, is earnest and conscientious. He likes to be given tasks to do and has grown up enough to understand something of what is mother is up to, even when at one point Josie skirts close to a liaison with a man who runs an RV camp and who is eager to take advantage of Josie’s singleness. Paul is highly protective of his five-year-old sister Ana, a barely containable energy force who seems likely to grow up to be an even wilder version of her mother. But Ana is still at an age where she worries about monsters and is completely dependent on adults for everything.
Throughout Heroes of the Frontier this trio of vagabonds roams the back roads of Alaska encountering a cast of memorable characters. They include a lonely old man who treats Josie and her kids to a magic show on a cruise ship; Josie’s step sister Sam, who lives with her fisherman husband in a kind of loose, semi-open marriage where hooking up with other partners seems to be accepted; a convict crew of road workers who rescue Josie from a flat tire on the Chateau she has no idea how to fix; and an eclectic group of musicians who invite Josie and her kids to get together at a jam session when Josie offers to give them all dental check-ups.
Heroes of the Frontier is a somewhat picaresque novel in that the story has no real plot but unfolds as a series of episodic adventures that Josie and her children encounter as their journey unfolds. We never have any idea what Josie’s longer term plans are for herself or her children, or if she has any at all. Josie’s, Paul’s and Ana’s lives do not change much by the end of the novel. There is no moment or epiphany or catharsis, no moral to the story or anything like that. We never know how long Josie and her children plan to wander around Alaska or what will happen to them if they ever return to Ohio.
But this hardly matters because the characters are rendered with such liveliness and sympathy that the reader doesn’t much care. We are delighted to ride along in the Chateau while Josie pilots the RV through parts unknown in the great northern wilderness, endeavoring always to protect Paul and Ana from mishap as well as keep them entertained. It is such a freshly experienced ride and the three characters so charming that it hardly matters whether the novel adheres to any formulaic notion of lessons that are supposed to be learned at the end.
Dave Eggers is by now a well-established and successful writer with a significant body of work behind him. His first major success was the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which was followed shortly thereafter by his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002). He has produced several works of both nonfiction and fiction since those early works, won numerous awards, and he is finding success in Hollywood as well. He wrote the screenplay for the 2009 movie Where the Wild Things Are, one his stories served as the basis for the 2012 movie Promised Land, and his 2013 novel The Circle was made into the movie by the same name that was just released.
Eggers’s writing is sharp and incisive, richly infused with humor. Heroes of the Frontier is a hysterically funny novel. Much of it lives in Josie’s head as she reflects on the human failings and weaknesses that brought her to Alaska, and this gives Eggers almost limitless opportunities to take jabs at contemporary American life. There is much poking fun at people and their foibles in Eggers’s writing, but it neither spiteful nor heavy-handed.
Heroes of the Frontier for the reader is largely what it must be for Josie and her children: a wild road trip in search of who knows what for no discernible purpose other than to get away from all the things that tend to bog us down in life. It may not last long, but it’s a welcome break to be cut loose.