Heroes of the Frontier came out with nearly no fanfare, which, to my mind, is odd, given that its author, Dave Eggers, is undoubtedly one of the most important voices in contemporary literary fiction. The latter half of 2016 has seen a new novel from Colson Whitehead and imminent new novels from Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon, and all of these have had bookish blogs and podcasts practically vibrating with excitement. But I hadn’t heard one word about Eggers’s new release until I happened upon it about two weeks before its publication while I was browsing (not buying) on Amazon.
As a huge Eggers fan (see my previous post on The Circle), I bought a copy on the day it dropped and tore promptly through it. My verdict: Like almost everything I’ve read of his, it’s marvelous.
On its surface, it’s merely the story of Josie and her two children, Ana and Paul, as they wander quite aimlessly in a rented RV throughout Alaska in the summertime. Thinking back on my experience reading this one, it’s admittedly a little difficult explaining precisely what I enjoyed so much about it, but I certainly did enjoy it. For one, Eggers’s protagonist is such a delightfully relatable character, a woman recently escaped from a substandard marriage to a silly, superficial man. Though the surface story concerns only the present timeline in Alaska, there’s quite a bit of flashback explaining how Josie arrived at these current circumstances, including a number of honestly quite funny stories about her ridiculous husband and his shortcomings as both a husband and a father, but also including some quite tragic tales from her childhood and more recent history. All in all, the result is a wonderfully robust and real character who we readers can’t help but root for, even as she engages in this somewhat questionable and ill-advised adventure with her children.
Second, Paul, her eight-year-old son, is such a powerful force in the novel. His precociousness is so pronounced that, in spite of his very young age, he comes off as not only immensely charming, but almost adult-like in his negotiating of this obviously weird time in his mother’s life and in his tender care for his younger sister. Third, the character of five-year-old Ana, though she’s a wild, destructive little beast, is developed masterfully by Eggers, written with such adorable charm that here also we readers can’t help but be drawn in. All in all, the immediate universe of the novel is composed almost entirely of these three souls in their rickety rented RV and the surrounding scenery, some of it beautiful, some of it harrowing, all of it someplace I wanted to be.
It truly is amazing what Eggers has done here, creating such a tight, tidy, and sparse universe, yet managing to fit within its confines a kind of sprawling, adventurous, beautiful tale. Read it.