Josie is at a breaking point. Carl, the father of their two young children, always had trouble committing to her but did not blink at the idea of getting engaged to another woman. Jeremy, a patient of Josie’s dental practice, died after she supported his desire to serve the country overseas. And Evelyn—a woman with terminal illness—and her family are suing Josie, effectively putting her out of business, for allegedly failing to diagnose oral cancer.
So Josie and her children Paul and Anna flee suburban Ohio for the westernmost reaches of the 50 states, Alaska, in Dave Eggers’ latest, Heroes Of The Frontier. Eggers is economical up front, placing Josie and her family in the midst of their journey, with Josie’s alcohol-fueled wandering mental state driving the book’s narrative perspective, which weaves between present action, the past moments that led to it, and the aspirations she holds for the future, which seem to focus on writing musicals that tap into life’s absurdities.
In less adroit hands, Heroes Of The Frontier could be a mess. It’s already a loose tale in which big scenes are cobbled together with less than a clear sense of direction. It’s a road trip movie with an undefined destination. But in Eggers’ hands, events like meeting a gun-fanatic family at an abandoned archery range, figuring out how to empty the sewage tank of an RV at a gas station, and encountering a band of prisoners in the midst of an Alaskan wildfire are molded into something more.
Heroes Of The Frontier’s adventure doubles as a metaphor for American life in suburbia. As much as Josie is fleeing personal problems, she also is fleeing an era in which everyone is disappointed with everything. Josie’s with a man she sees as a deadbeat dad, someone more interested in talking about the Occupy movement than actually joining it. The comfort and ease of everyday suburban life is numbing Josie, sending her in search of something exciting, something worthwhile she can pass on to her children.
Josie may not be fleeing from Ohio, exactly—she might be running to something instead of way from something. She only knows what she’s looking for can’t be found in Ohio. In Josie, Eggers finds a sympathetic character, who—like most of us—is searching for something. That search is the heart of Heroes Of The Frontier, which tries to take the jumble of past, present, and future swirling around Josie’s brain, effected by addiction, and make sense of it all. It takes home on the road—literally, as the family travels in the comically named dilapidated RV the “Chateau”—in search of answers, following a character who oscillates between lost and driven, finding both horror and help along the way.
The setting makes for striking scenery from Eggers, and his portrayal of Alaska is an inviting entry point to the narrative. Heroes Of The Frontier is frequently funny, as Eggers finds humor in the absurd, be it via Josie’s actions and thoughts, her son Paul’s propensity to stare into her soul, or daughter Anna’s recklessness. But their journey is not so simple as just leaving home and starting over. When Josie reunites with her old friend/step-sister Sam in the town of Homer, the past lingers. There are reminders of it everywhere. The disquiet continues miles from “home.” The present is an amalgamation of the past and future, and Josie tries to make sense of it all, the copious amounts of alcohol she drinks doing little to help.
And while Heroes Of The Frontier packs a dynamic punch at its conclusion, Eggers is not about to leave his readers with easy answers to the complex problems he presents. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, as Josie does, is never easy. But maybe that unease is what helps us feel alive. Eggers, like his character, is working with his past, thinking of his future, and taking a bold step out of his comfort zone. His intent, it seems, is to take us out of ours, as well—to try to force us to make sense of the mess that is our lives. And maybe only by joining him in shedding that comfort can we learn something new about ourselves.
For a place to discuss the ending we don’t reveal here, head over to The Last Page.