Heroes of The Frontier by Dave Eggers
Knopf, 2016; 400 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fische
The titular heroes of Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers's new novel, lack the goals and forward propulsion exemplified by typical protagonists. Josie, the mother of Ana and Paul, has taken her family to Alaska to get away. Away from: Carl, father of the children and prodigious mover of bowels. Carl is jobless and his goals shift from occupying Wall Street to running triathlons to never entering the realm of responsible adulthood. Away from: Evelyn Sandalwood, litigious dental patient of Josie, who in dying from cancer has sued her for malpractice. Away from: the memory of a young soldier, dead in Afghanistan, that Josie encouraged in his enthusiasm to serve his country. Away from: a complicated childhood wrapped up in show tunes and suicidal mental patients. But in running away from, they are also running toward. Toward: familial closeness and adventure that shapes life. Toward: all sorts of sappy stuff like forgiveness, both of others and of the self.
The novel is populated with characters they meet on their road trip, but Eggers avoids the trap of having these secondary characters impart bits of wisdom. Mostly they just serve as a reminder that the world is a large and strange place, and that people we don't know are called strangers for a reason. Their motives are unknown and their habits are alien. The isolation of the unrecognizable ties the binds that we have with those we have chosen even tighter. Josie, Ana, and Paul move through the Alaskan night as a team. They break into cabins, drink from waterfalls, and run away from a fire that burns violently through Alaska serving as both actual and metaphorical.
Eggers is Eggers. He captures the idiosyncrasies of life with bafflement and joy, while effortlessly juxtaposing the deep and obscure pain of living with the wide-eyed astonishment at just how strange and beautiful and full of life everything can be. The characterizations here, particularly of the children—Paul, the older brother and "ice-priest"; Ana, younger sister and feral girl—are real and deeply felt. At times we swing too manically between the poles of bewildered happiness and harrowing hopelessness, but that too informs the narrative in a way that feels accurate to a collection of lives plowing through the frontier.