Saturday 3 December 2016

Author escapes Hollywood with a trip to wilderness

Fiction: Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, pbk, 400 pages, £16.99

Duncan White

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

Adventure: Protagonist Josie runs away to Alaska with her two children
Adventure: Protagonist Josie runs away to Alaska with her two children
Dave Eggers
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

In danger of becoming culturally mainstream, Dave Eggers has retreated to Alaska with this tale of a semi-alcoholic dentist on a mock odyssey with her children.

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Dave Eggers has just arrived somewhere near the cultural mainstream. Two of his novels have now been turned into big-budget films, both out this year, both (as it happens) starring Tom Hanks. So has Eggers, staunch defender of his creative independence, finally sold out?

Heroes of the Frontier makes short work of that theory. It's a mark of the author's admirable cussedness that his latest novel is about a semi-alcoholic dentist having a breakdown in a motorhome in Alaska. Josie is in search of pioneers, heroes, the frontier, and pursues the sacred land of her imagination on a kind of mock epic odyssey through shabby tourist towns - one of them called Homer - while trying to protect her two children from libertarian gun nuts, raging forest fires and the consequences of her own disastrous decisions. By turns tawdry and touching, it is an episodic catalogue of small failures. It is not the stuff of Hollywood.

But, then again, nor was A Hologram for the King (2012), Eggers' lament on the decline of American manufacturing told through the story of an American salesman's midlife crisis amid the foundations of a yet-to-be-built city in Saudi Arabia. Even so, Hollywood jumped at it, watering this novel of concentrated brilliance down into a disappointing film, out earlier this year. Perhaps The Circle, Eggers' 2013 Orwellian thriller about a sinister digital firm that has bought up Google, Facebook et al, to hit screens later this year, will better weather the transition into film - or maybe Eggers just won't go to Hollywood.

Ironically, it was the failure of a film adaptation that gave Eggers his creative independence in the first place. He sold the rights to his 2000 debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for $2m. Then, much to his relief, despite a Nick Hornby script and PT Anderson's interest in directing it, the movie never went into production. The money, on the other hand, was put to good use: Eggers set up writing labs for children and McSweeney's, a not-for-profit publisher in San Francisco.

That social conscience, that anger at the way the world is going, runs through Eggers's various novels, and Heroes of the Frontier is no exception.

Josie runs away to Alaska ostensibly because her "invertebrate" ex-boyfriend - a "loose-bowelled man named Carl" - is getting married. Despite his failure to support their children in any tangible way, he wants them to visit him in Florida so that his new in-laws will be persuaded he's a responsible type. Josie's blood boils at the prospect. She absconds to Alaska with the children in secret.

But it's more than Carl she's fleeing. There are "a thousand reasons" for her to "leave the Lower 48, leave a country spinning its wheels, a country making occasional forays into progress and enlightenment but otherwise uninspired, otherwise prone to cannibalism, to eating the young and weak, to finger-pointing and complaint and distraction and the volcanic emergence of ancient hatreds".

America, or at least a part of it, is destroying Josie. After being sued by a patient who claims she missed a tumour, Josie has been forced to give up her dental practice; poor though this leaves her, it comes as something of a relief, after years spent enduring disgruntled employees and anonymous online critics. Her hippie Ohio town is being gentrified; the new residents are entitled and angry, the organic market a pit of aggression. A Lycra-clad cyclist beats an innocent driver almost to death with his pump.

She wants to escape to a place that offers purity and light, away from small-town cruelty and cowardice. Alaska is the farthest she can go, because her daughter doesn't have a passport. It "was at once the same country but another country, was almost Russia, was almost oblivion, and if Josie left her phone and used only cash - she'd brought $3,000 in the kind of velvet bag meant to hold gold coins or magic beans - she was untraceable, untrackable".

But Alaska, the final American frontier, disappoints her. Everything is expensive: "it looked like a cold Kentucky but its prices were Tokyo, 1988". Her velvet purse soon empties. Even nature refuses to play along with her fantasy. At a tired animal park, Josie is thrilled that her children can watch bighorn sheep picking their way along a mountainside, symbol, to her, of "unadulterated bliss", of an "uncomplicated life lived high above everything." Then an eagle swoops in, plucks up one of the sheep and drops it off the cliff.

This becomes the pattern for their peripatetic road trip. Each chapter begins with fresh hope, and a moment of transcendence; then it is undercut, and the family has to move on. Heroes of the Frontier is a shaggy dog story in which the kids find an actual shaggy dog - but the unpleasant owner turns up to reclaim it.

The children are drawn with Eggers' typical warmth and wit, an antidote to the bleakness: Ana, five, is joyously destructive; Paul, eight, is mature and hypersensitive. Josie is well-realised, too: anxious, but a terrifyingly reckless mother. She is earnest, though, in her desire to be a better parent than she ever had - hers were psychiatric nurses addicted to their patients' drugs.

The novel's very unpredictability soon becomes predictable. As a structural motif, each chapter begins with the three of them, on the road, driving aimlessly towards some fugitive destination.

You end up feeling a bit like Paul and Ana, in the back of the RV, asking plaintively: "Are we there yet?"

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