Expertly crafted and packed with enough pure human moments that at least one of them should permeate even Eggers skeptics.
A perennial gear-shifter, it seems that novelist/screenwriter/political playlist curator Dave Eggers seems to have settled on consistent themes across his past few novels. The celebrated, prolific writer has been churning out character studies about the place of worn-down humans in our increasingly inhuman world. It isn’t a groundbreaking concept, but Eggers has proven himself capable of rendering painstakingly realized characters like Achak in What is the What or even Mae Holland in The Circle. In his latest, Heroes of the Frontier, Eggers turns his tender, attentive eye to a mother seeking a fresh start, Into the Wild-style.
Heroes of the Frontier has a fair amount in common with Eggers’ dude-waiting-for-a-meeting novel, A Hologram for the King, a slow-moving character study where the grandest realizations occur in the gaps between action. Heroes is on its surface a road trip novel, but the impetus for Josie to pick up her life, cram it (and her children) into an RV and head to Alaska is quite similar to Hologram’s failed salesman Alan Clay: tragedy amid the general ennui of modern life.
The novel begins with something akin to an exposition dump, which is really done so Eggers can get the reader on the road with Josie and her kids, Paul and Ana, more quickly. At times, it can feel like Eggers is a bit more concerned with the fact that he’s writing a road-trip novel than he is with the nuances of the characters in the RV, but overall he is able to handle the intricacies of this fractured family dynamic (her husband, the children’s father, walked out on them prior to the events of the novel). At his best, Eggers manages to capture family disputes in extreme close-ups that show the intricacies of their relationship. In one particularly telling scene, there’s a miscommunication over a certain word between mother and children.
“‘Are you hungry or not?’ Josie asked.”
“‘No!’ Ana yelled, now about to cry again.”
“Paul looked to Ana, his eyes probing. ‘Is there another way you could say it?’”
“‘I want to see it!’ Ana wailed, and immediately Paul understood.”
“‘She wants a mirror, not a meal,’ he told his mother, a flash of delight in his ice-priest eyes. Ana nodded vigorously, and a smile overtook Paul’s face. This was treasure to him, this was joy. All he wanted was to know his sister better than anyone else.”
Scenes like that are the lifeblood of Heroes, which feels decidedly lower-stakes than The Circle or Hologram due its fairly technology-free setup and smaller scale action. It ultimately may be minor Eggers (though not quite as minor as Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?), but it’s expertly crafted and packed with enough pure human moments that at least one of them should permeate even Eggers skeptics.
It’ll perhaps have a home in Eggers’ burgeoning cinematic canon, but Heroes of the Frontier, with its intimate, familiar story, also feels like the kind of work that is suited best for this brand of deliberate, veteran pacing that Eggers has shown complete fluency in over the past decade.