Head for the Hills
Dave Eggers' newest novel, "Heroes of the Frontier," might make you consider renting an RV.
If there are heroes in Dave Eggers’ new novel, Heroes of the Frontier, they are the children of single mom, ex-dentist Josie. Paul is an overanxious little man at age 8 with a heart as big as Alaska, the state to which Josie flees with her children to escape from Carl, her spineless, unemployed, ex-husband and the kids’ father. Paul’s sister Ana is a 5-year-old redhead: a bright whippersnapper without boundaries.
Traveling in a rundown, rented RV—preposterously named the Chateau—Josie “steals” her children and hopes to leave behind feral dogs, Carl’s bowel elimination fixations, angry yoga moms wearing Lycra, and more serious problems: grief after a friend whom she advised to follow his dreams into the Marines was killed in Afghanistan, and an unsettled lawsuit that continues and has forced her to give up her practice.
Eggers’s 2012 novel, A Hologram for the King, and his impressive storytelling as a debut author in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, prove he’s a master of the drama-com spectrum. Heroes is best when Eggers steps back from the literary limelight, which he does here with mixed success, to allow his characters center stage.
Josie is a person we shouldn’t like, but we do, in part because she arrives already damaged, having grown up as the daughter of parents involved as nurses in a VA drug-scandal that caused suicides and accidental deaths. Imagining spectacular, surreal musicals—a military tattoo, “Grenada,” on a man’s arm causes instant, mental images of soldiers parachuting onto a stage—she alternates Broadway escapism with picturing her face smashed by glass bottles. She’s 40, weary, prone to poor judgment when it comes to men, abandoned mines, wildfires, and even average dangers, but Josie haphazardly, wholeheartedly, loves her children.
In Alaska, their lives are like that of a jazz band, with lots of improvisation, one-night stands, road travel, and miracle quick-save performances. When the wilderness adventures reach their peak, Eggers has lulled us into the family’s rhythm with enough gorgeous prose and cleverness that an avalanche seems ho-hum, and grave injury is a cartoon we expect will disappear by the next chapter.
Although there’s unsatisfying randomness to the episodic structure of Heroes and a few dead end paths down which the story meanders, Paul and Ana remain engaging throughout. Representing enthusiasm, curiosity, simple devotion, and acting as the perfect travel companions during their mother’s moments of pleasure or despair, the heroic pair—and the book—might even make you consider renting an RV and heading for the hills.
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers (Knopf, July 2016, 400 pp., $28.95)
This report was published in the October edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Oct. 18, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.