Parents, raise your hand if you've ever fantasized about getting in your car and driving as far north as possible.
Escaping the endless requests for tax documents, kitchen renovation appointments, work obligations, the piles of dishes and laundry that seem to replicate faster than Gremlins doused in water: it's a fantasy that runs through most people's minds -- especially if, like me, you were once prone to vagabondism but have now, in middle age, settled into home ownership and committed family life. For us, there is a vacillation between wanting to stay put, to establish familiarity and roots, to study a place, learn its history, edges, the ecosystem; or, to shed belongings, social obligations, neighborhood politics, the identities that get locked in place by time, habit, and lack of imagination.
Should I have kept moving? you may ask yourself. Is it cowardly to plant roots in one place? Will this place where I've settled eventually drive me crazy, made into a person I secretly hate?
Last year, in a fit of exuberance, I tried to convince my husband that we should rent out our house for a few months and hit the road in an RV. It would be a great family adventure! We should do it before our daughter hits kindergarten, I argued, and we really have to settle down! I've traveled cross-country in a big, foul-smelling van with too many people, and I know that driving long distances across the United States isn't necessarily glamorous. Yet in the moment, the plan felt expansive, freeing, brilliant. I fondly remembered the feeling of hitting the road toward the next city. You never knew what the day would bring; the only certainty was that things wouldn't follow a set pattern. I wanted that again.
Questions like these, of movement, bravery, and escape, lie at the core of Heroes of the Frontier, the latest from Bay Area literary icon Dave Eggers. It's the seventh novel for the founder of 826 Valencia and McSweeney's, and his second to be narrated by a female protagonist. In this case, the narrator is Josie, a 40-year-old dentist from Ohio who has lost her dental practice to litigation and broken up with the father of her kids, an "invertebrate" "loose-boweled" man-child named Carl.
With nothing to lose, Josie escapes to Alaska with her two children in tow. Eight-year-old Paul is wise beyond his years, and devoutly committed to the well-being of his little sister. Five-year-old Ana is "a green-eyed animal with a burst of irrationally red hair and a knack for assessing the most breakable object in any room and then breaking it with incredible alacrity." Josie is fiercely devoted to her children, but she's ambivalent about her ability to parent them appropriately.
"Parents could not be interesting, could they? The best parents rise and fall like suns and moons. They circle with the predictability of the planets. With great clarity Josie realized the undeniable truth: interesting people cannot bear children. The propagation of the species is up to the drones. Once you find you are different, that you have moods, that you have whims, that you get bored, that you want to see Antarctica, you should not have children. What happens to the children of interesting people? They are invariably bent. They are crushed. They have not had the predictable suns and so they are deprived, desperate and unsure - where will the sun be tomorrow? Fuck, she thought. Should I give these children away, to some dependable sun?"
Throughout the novel, Josie struggles with her whims. She worries that her bad decisions will damage her children. And yes, at times, the reader might wonder the same thing. As I got deeper into Heroes of the Frontier, I wondered whether I was following a reliable narrator. Which led me to the conclusion that maybe we are all unreliable narrators, in a way. Blundering and steamrolling our way through life, pretending we know the answer when uncertainty is the only guarantee.
Josie has come to Alaska, like so many who've gone into unfamiliar territories, in search of magic, clarity, an escape from the dull stupidity of the rest of America -- and, deeper down, invisibility and possibly oblivion. Tension underlies the first two-thirds of the novel. Will Josie crack up? Will she drive her kids off a cliff, see them mauled by a bear, drown them in the cold sea? Will the family eventually go out like Christopher McCandless? In the meantime, Josie has a vaguely hatched plan to meet up with her adopted step-sister Sam, who leads bird-watching tours in Homer where she lives with twin daughters. On their first night in the state, sitting in a rented RV and buzzed on Pinot Noir, Josie reflects on the Alaska she's seen so far, a cluttered and tough place, which, aside from blazing forest fires, is as mundane as the place she's escaped.
"So where were the heroes? All she knew where she had come from were cowards. No, there was one brave man, and she'd helped get him killed. One courageous man now dead. Everyone took everything and Jeremy was dead. Find me someone bold, she asked the dark trees before her. Find me someone of substance, she demanded of the mountains beyond."
Jeremy, as it turns out, was a former patient of Josie's. After she encourages him to enlist in the military, to be brave and go fight in Afghanistan, he is killed in the line of duty, still a teenager. Josie blames herself. It's one of many heavy stones she's carried to Alaska: guilt, resentment towards Carl and his new fiancé, and vitriol towards the elderly woman whose family sues Josie for malpractice for missing a cancerous mouth tumor. She hates life back in Ohio, a once-peaceful small town overtaken in recent times by angry Pilates- and organic food-loving ponytailed ladies and murderous cyclists outfitted in spandex and "tiny special shoes" riding $5,000 bicycles. This of course, offers the perfect opportunity for a classic character-monologue Eggers rant:
"The crime of the ponytail ladies was that they were always in a hurry, in a hurry to exercise, in a hurry to examine the scores from the school's Mandarin-immersion program, in a hurry to buy micro-greens at the new ivy-covered organic grocery, one of the newly dominant national chain begun by a libertarian megalomaniac, a store where the food had been curated, in which women in their ponytails rushed quickly through, smiling viciously when their carts' paths were momentarily waylaid. In its radical evolution toward better food and health and education, the town had become a miserable place, and the organic grocery was the unhappiest place in that miserable town. The checkout people were not happy being there, and the people bagging groceries were apoplectic. The butchers seemed content, the cheese people seemed content, but everyone else was murderous. The same terrible women (and men) who drove aggressively to yoga now drove aggressively to the organic grocery store and parked angrily -- they stole the last parking spot from some elderly citizens hoping to use the nearby pharmacy, got out and rushed from their cars, half-livid, to buy Havarti and Prosecco and veggie burgers. These people were now all over Josie's small town, endangering her children with their predatory driving and barely contained fury."
Still, Josie's search for bold Alaskan heroes ends in disappointment nearly every time. She finds fury in Alaska. She finds careless people, gun-toting maniacs, and angry landowners. She doesn't find solace or safety with Sam, or with anyone aside from herself and her children, a realization that sends her on the road heading further into the Alaskan wilderness.
Heroes of the Frontier is also filled with charmed survival scenes that reminded me of John Cusack's ability to escape total catastrophe, over and over, in the movie 2012. By the third or fourth near-miss, you're thinking, "Yeah, right. There is no way he'd make it out alive that time." I felt the same way about Josie's escapes, from forest fires and other threats. Why is she making them walk miles through the woods with only candles to light their way? What is this crazy lady thinking? And, "Yeah, right. Like they'd really come upon a fully stocked empty cabin just when they needed to rest in a real bed for a few days."
But, when taken as fable or fantasy, the sudden cabins and lucky escapes work. Heroes of the Frontier shouldn't be read as straight realism. This is fairy tale through and through; a story of adventure and daring that could be mistaken for modern realism because the narrator is an adult woman, a dentist even, with young children. The type of character who rarely, in movies or in literature, is allowed to drag her children through dangerous situations (breaking and entering, avalanches, thunderstorms, night walks through the wild) without some sort of noble purpose. In this case, the purpose is just to keep moving. In that movement, the family stumbles into their own form of nobility, wisdom, freedom from the stultifying lifestyle choices of most Americans. Better to think of the family as modern-day pirates on wild and daring adventure in a strange, dangerous land populated with sinners, saints, and waitresses who could be either. This is the Alaska of Eggers' imagination, not necessarily an authentic portrayal of what would actually happen if one traipsed through the woods unprotected with young children.
Here, the forest isn't a place of brutality and Darwinian survival. Instead, it's a purifying arena where light and land become more important than a greedy, suburban material world. Parts of the novel are like a Thoreauian parable, where man is the savage, the aggressor, the cannibal, and nature is a potent source for recalibrating the moral compass. Ana and Paul become ennobled by extended contact with nature. Outside the grasp of society, they grow healthier, better behaved.
"Ana acted nobly, and her face shone with an otherworldly glow. Children, Josie realized, are truly like animals. Give them clean foods and water and fresh air, and their coats will be shiny, their teeth white, their muscles supple and skin bright. But indoors, contained, they will become mangy, yellow-eyed, riddled with self-inflicted wounds."
By the end, Heroes of the Frontier lies firmly on the side of movement. In movement -- in change -- lies peace. Maybe not permanently, but in this case, it's better than the alternative: staying put, convinced that it somehow endows one with integrity. Eggers makes the case that there is meaning in movement, however blind or misguided it might appear from the outset, a claim with which all the world's daring adventurers throughout history would surely agree. As Eggers writes, "Courage was the beginning, being unafraid, moving ahead through small hardships, not turning back. Courage was simply a form of moving forward.”
Dave Eggers appears at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Monday, Aug. 29. Details here.