A hilarious and moving state-of-the-nation road trip, Heroes of the Frontier is Dave Eggers at his satirical best.
Heroes of the Frontier is a story of a small family “from the bottom forty-eight” driving through Alaska. Josie, a dentist fleeing a broken relationship and an impending lawsuit, takes her two children out of school and flies to Anchorage. They rent a battered old RV nicknamed “The Chateau” and aimlessly hit the road. The story takes on a familiar pattern. Josie arrives in a new place, full of hope and unfettered optimism. Before long, either through her own mistakes or shattered expectations, they leave – Josie dejected and forlorn, before starting all over again. It is a pattern mirrored in the life she left behind, which is slowly revealed to us – the peaks and troughs of daily suburbia, the deadening monotony irregularly punctured by fleeting moments of euphoria.
There is plenty to keep this formula from growing stale. At the heart of the novel is Josie’s relationship with her two children. Refreshingly, they are portrayed as real people – funny, sympathetic, and decent. Paul, eight, is a mature and sensitive boy, whose gentleness feels like an antidote to the selfishness and greed of modern America Josie is fleeing. His younger sister Ana, on the other hand, is a maelstrom of energy and exuberance, a tiny destructive force of nature. They are both beautiful creations.
Dave Eggers is a big theme writer. Plot can often seem secondary to the issue he wants to discuss. From the erosion of privacy and our increasing dependence on technology in The Circle, to the decline of American manufacturing in A Hologram for the King, his novels are the medium do deliver a message. That the message never feels preachy is one of his greatest strengths.
Heroes of the Frontier, like each novel before it, is different but the same. Different style and setting, same hard-to-miss big idea. This time the issues raised are broad and manifold, but all focus on one thing – the state of modern America. From the incomprehensibly selfish act of using a leaf blower (“The easiest way to witness the stupidity and misplaced hopes of all humanity is to watch, for twenty minutes, a human being using a leaf blower”), to the not-so-passive aggression of health food obsessives, Eggers explores a middle-America that has completely lost the run of itself. Absurd gun laws, an education system working unashamedly in favour of the privileged, the petty everyday vengeance of online review sites – Eggers casts his net wide. He asks why would someone want to leave, but the real question soon becomes clear – why would someone want to stay?
And yet Heroes of the Frontier is a book filled with hope. It is not cynical. It is full of humour and kindness. What Josie wants for her children, Eggers wants for America – to be brave and unselfish. The idea of raising a generation not stunted by consumerism and narcissism may seem mawkish to the jaded eye-rollers, but it’s beginning to feel more urgent than ever.