Heroes of the Frontier
Dave Eggers, an American writer and activist, is obsessed with his country and its foibles. Like Michael Moore, he portrays North America as both farcical and obscene, and his work is simultaneously exhilarating and distressing. Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier is precisely such a novel. It is a rollicking and unsettling reflection on America’s history and its imperilled future, tracing the odyssey of a woman named Josie as she flees her past, taking her two children on an impulsive RV road trip into Alaska. Headed for a town called Homer, the mythological nature of the story is playfully flagged.
Josie’s tale is deeply allegorical. Her backstory chimes with the mess of America’s contemporary military past. Josie’s ex is a man whose ancestors had pillaged Panama and who is childishly guiltless about everything. Her parents were psych nurses in an institution for Vietnam veterans – before having their own unique meltdowns. Later in her life, Josie brings about the death of a young man she encouraged to ship out to Afghanistan. Each time, she flees rather than address the problem.
Josie’s reckless flight into the future aligns her further with her country and, indeed, takes her deeper into its mythologised past. Driving her wagon-like mobile home into the wilds of Alaska, Josie stops at a succession of abandoned tourist spots that resonate with United States frontier history. In one, her children play with bows and arrows, while another group of children play with rifles. In another, Josie and her family squat in a cottage located at a silver mine. There Josie fantasises about the virtues of frontier life and her children spontaneously becoming “stronger, smarter, more moral, ethical, logical, considerate, and brave”.
At the same time, she neglects her children, anaesthetises herself with alcohol and dreams of writing musicals, that great American genre: “It was the only medium that could properly express our true madness and hypocrisy – our collective ability to sit in a theatre watching lunatics sing nonsense while the world outside burns.” Alaska is literally burning in the novel, thanks to an uncontrollable forest fire, a menacing backdrop suggestive of climate change.
The fantasy of forging a new life by revitalising an old myth at a time of impending apocalypse is ultimately portrayed as insane. Eggers is one of today’s most dynamic writers, and this is a vital novel for the Trump age. KN
Hamish Hamilton, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 20, 2016 as "Dave Eggers, Heroes of the Frontier". Subscribe here.