Heroes of the Frontier
(Alfred A. Knopf)
We're not so sure about this Josie. She's a forty-year-old runaway from Ohio: running from her dental practice; from the malpractice suit they've laid on her business; from her don't-bother-me husband; running away, too, from a sweet young man she thinks she's murdered (he wanted to go to Afghanistan; he thought he owed it to his country; she said go ahead if you want; he died in combat two months after he got there).
So she runs away to Alaska, of all benighted places, rents a motor home, sets off for the unknown wilderness with her two children. There's Paul, aged eight, a straight-shooter, eyes large enough for one to fall into, honest and brave; and then there's five-year-old Ana, who is trouble in spades. If there is something to be broken, Ana will single it out, drop it, or if nailed to the wall, will manage to sabotage it.
Their rented trailer, named the "Chateau," has a stove with petcocks for the four burners. In the first few days, Ana manages to turn all of them on - - - leaving Paul and Josie to figure why, while they are driving through the great green forest, suddenly the trailer stinks so. Good thing there was no pilot on the stove.
Or later, even further north, another smell! Everyone's getting sick, except Ana, pretending to sleep. What could it possibly be? Josie's no engineer, but finally, figures out that for a trailer to survive the Alaskan winters, there has to be a heater. Yes, for the trailer, but, also for what trailer people call the "black water tank."
Crap. You don't want the tank which is full of people-crap to freeze up when it's ten degrees below. If it's frozen, you can't dump it; nor can you use it. For miles and miles.
Thus we have a crapola tank warmer to keep it from locking up. And it has a special hidden switch. That Ana found. Heating things that don't need to be heated in the middle of the hot Alaskan summer. Stinky things boiling down there under the camper.
§ § §
Eggers is one of those writers who pulls you right in from the very beginning, won't leave you alone, even when he's telling of a woman who really wants people (us!) to leave her alone, changes her mind every five minutes - - - like a child.
Here we are driving through Alaska in the summer with all the fires and ash and smoke on lonely two-lane highways, on the lam from memories and lawyers back in Ohio, two kids and dotty mom, who has (1) an unwillingness to stay put for more than a night or so - - - even in the most paradisiacal place; (2) an obsession with nipping on bottles of cheap bad wine at inappropriate times; (3) goes into attacks of semi-madness leading her to be as devilish as her daughter.
Example: She finds a 24-hour diner with a neon beer sign in the window. "She was in one of those moods, she knew - - - once a month an ebullience came over her and she found herself small-talking someone at the checkout counter, people walking their dogs, nurses pushing the elderly down the sidewalk. "What a day, right?" So she leaves the kids sleeping in the camper, goes inside, sits herself down alone in one of the booths, looks up to see the guy in the next booth, "one of those fat, round ageless faces that could be thirty or fifty."
"You can come over here if you want," she said. She noticed he had ordered nothing but a cookie and a glass of water. "Bring your water and cookie."
"She found him vulnerable, shy, unassuming, safe." Then the waitress comes up. The waitress was holding some papers, printed maps, "pages with hand-written notes, and under these pages, an open-sided manila file folder and below that, a large closed envelope." He laughs a little laugh, says "Would have defeated the whole purpose, right? Coming all the way up here and forgetting the envelope."
"He said this to Josie, and finally it came together. He was serving her legal papers. She was being sued by someone, thousands of miles away, and this shy man was an envoy delivering this aggression."
Josie stood up. "This man just propositioned me," she said loudly. "He said he wanted to do to me what he's done to other women around the state." She backed away from the table, moving toward the front door, and was satisfied to see that most of the customers in the room were hearing her. "I don't know what this means, but I'm scared." She slaps down two twenties and runs to the door.
He said horrible things to me!" she said, allowing her voice to peak. "I'm scared!" she wailed, and burst through the front door.
Not bad, she thought.
Once she gets outside, she runs to the Chateau climbs in and finds Paul and Ana still asleep in their seats.
She started the engine and looked into the restaurant's window. Two of the truckers, older men solidly built, and awake to the possibility that they would create a justice event, had approached the table, and were hovering over the man, whose hands lay on top of his stack of papers.
§ § §
"They would create a justice event!"
"Not bad, she thought."
My brief reprise can't show you Egger's careful crafting of this scene, which goes on for several pages. Nor can it explain our shock as we read it. This comes about two-thirds of the way though Heroes of the Frontier. We've been with Josie and Paul and Ana through this long on-the-road haphazard journey through Alaska, pure picaresque, terrific characters popping up here and there, wild times, us beginning to fall in love with this eccentric bunch.
We know that Josie goes a little overboard on this "who-can-you-trust?" business, and we note, again and again her unwillingness to stay around strangers who are obviously fond of this vagrant mother and her two beautiful children, people who continually invite the family to stay on with them.
But Josie always takes off, not even saying goodbye to these good Samaritans who want to help. Then, in the midst of one of her benign moods, she's alone in a café, and she invites a man in the next booth, a "softly built man in loose jeans and a plaid button-down [who was] even more harmless now that she saw him up close."
She gets him over to her table, and although she's in the middle of nowhere, no one in the world knowing where she is, there in the middle of a 663,268 square miles of a state, in some anonymous 24-hour cafe, face-to-face with someone that she is suddenly sure flew up from Ohio and having found her just like that in some distant café in a distant place in the middle of nowhere - - - there to serve her with papers.
Suddenly we know this Josie far better than we want to know this Josie. She's been a hell of a lot of fun to be with in the Chateau up to now, but after this, we realize that she is a floating land-mine . . . knowing that if we were to meet her, we'd probably find ourselves blown (up or off).
§ § §
We first met Eggers in an entrancing piece in The New Yorker in 2000, a quirky story about him and his brother Toph, newly moved to San Francisco. The story appeared later the same year as a part of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It was original in being about young people (one of them a charming visionary) without a scintilla of the usual staples of first novels about juveniles: no sex, no drugs, no rock'n'roll. It was J. D. Salinger without the Zen, and soon brought Eggers the fame he deserved.
When Genius came out, our reviewer, Hugh Gallagher wrote, in his review,
He's a very uneven writer. Sometimes he goes on and on - - - you understand what he is trying to do but he doesn't do it. This is not a matter of poor editing; it is just that he is aiming so high, trying so hard to reach something that is almost impossible to reach - - - one just have to cut him some slack. He is an uneven writer but all very good writers are uneven. It is not possible to write well all the time.
Eggers is a remarkably astute writer. His writing - - - of things, of what's going on, of what the feelings are - - - is precise, on the dime. He has thought seriously about what he is showing you with his words. He has important things to say, as Shakespeare had important things to say. And like Shakespeare, sometimes his words just sing off the page. Sometimes, like Shakespeare, Eggers is so right it takes one's breath away.
I am a writer and I know such writing is very hard to do and very rare. Attention must be paid.
§ § §
Eggers' writings are astringent, funny, somewhat journalistic. And a recent piece in the Guardian was one of the best we've read about Donald Trump and his astounding rise. Which has little to do with politics, Eggers claims, and more to do with the stump speeches being nothing but terrific stand-up routines. Eggers wrote,
All along I'd been trying to put my finger on what the rally reminded me of. And now, my head back in the 1980s, it hit me: Andrew Dice Clay. He might not be familiar to audiences outside the US, but in the 80s, for a few years, he was the most popular comedian in America. He would come out looking like the Fonz - - - in jeans, a leather jacket and a white T-shirt - - - and he'd tell jokes that were politically incorrect but often very funny. His posture was that of a braggy thug from Brooklyn, saying crude things on the street corner. At the height of his fame, he could sell out stadiums.
Eggers concludes:"It was just an act, of course. But like a lot of comedy, the appeal is in the forbidden delight in hearing highly inappropriate things spoken into a microphone. We can't believe someone said that, on stage, or behind a podium, to so many."
Americans who have voted for Trump in the primaries have done so not because they agree with all, or any, of his statements or promises, but because he is an entertainment. He is a loud, captivating distraction and a very good comedian. His appeal is aided by these rallies, and by media coverage, and both are fuelled not by substance but by his willingness to say crazy shit.
"Because he is all over the place, sometimes he gets it wrong."
As I was writing this review, I ran across an interview with Eggers by Jeff Turrentine, which appeared in the Washington Post.
In his discussion of Heroes of the Frontier Eggers claimed "We all know that we can't run away from our problems,"
but in Josie's case . . . there comes a point when she realizes that she's no longer running away: "She's running toward something. There's meaning in her motion. The daily challenge of the adventure is actually beginning to improve her and her kids; it's making them stronger, braver, more empathetic and enlightened. I wanted the novel to pivot at a certain point, where it could change from a journey of escape to the realization that this may well be where she and her kids can become their best selves."
Eggers says that there is a pivot in the book, a cathartic moment "that takes place at a low-budget wedding reception in an Alaskan RV park. We don't know who the bride and groom are; as it happens, they're wholly unimportant to the story. Josie, the novel's self-effacing heroine, doesn't know them, either. But that's not enough to keep the father of the groom from extending a spontaneous invitation for Josie, a single mom with her two children to join the festivities - - - an invitation that Josie humbly accepts, through sobs of embarrassed gratitude.
Ultimately, Josie discovers how her quixotic-seeming journey has in fact made her stronger, smarter and braver. "She's gotten back to a sense of pure adventure," says Eggers, "the sense of not knowing what's around the next corner, or even necessarily where you'll be staying the next night."
§ § §
Eggers here makes a rare - - - but serious - - - error. He believes that he can comment on his own work, and get away with it. A novel, which with great fanfare, has, as of today, been delivered to the world. Or as the Spanish say, born, se da al luz - - - given to the light.
Eggers has not yet learned (these kids! . . . he's only forty-seven-years old!) that once your work of art is the hands of others (you, me, the critics, the rest of the reading world) he no longer owns it. He's sold his rights to it. He can comment on Josie, but it's too late, and, further, there's a good chance that his commentary is all wrong. He, like us, has fallen for Josie, but it's too late. She's flown the coop.
Eggers told Turrentine that Josie has become "stronger, smarter and braver," tells us that she has now found her path. "I wanted the novel to pivot at a certain point," he went on, "where it could change from a journey of escape to the realization that this may well be where she and her kids can become their best selves."
I think not. The wedding scene is fun, but it's not the moment he thinks it is. The real pivot (what we English majors call the "watershed") arrives in the passage with the man in the café. And it doesn't show "best self."
Eggers has spent pages offering us a person who lives in edge city. As the book trails off - - - and it does just that - - - we know that the tale of our now happy family participating a stranger's fun wedding is probably no change at all. Rather, it is a way-station in a crazy journey which may not turn out well at all for all.
For Eggers has created, masterfully, a character who can turn on a dime; she's classic schizoid, what the DSM-IV dubbed Axis II, "often overtly ambivalent, wavering indecisively from one course of action to its opposite. They may follow an erratic path that causes endless wrangles with others and disappointment for themselves."
This is our Josie. Loving and gentle at times; then, moments later, whacko - - - wrecking, perhaps destroying the life of total strangers.
For some of us who have lived with such a person, the final pages of Heroes of the Frontier cast a melancholy over Josie's once wonderful, almost beat, journey. They ended up giving me a strong case of the willies.
Not for what Josie had done, but what she is going to do to herself, and her kids, after she casts us off in the last pages, riding off into the smoke-filled, chilly, and definitely dangerous Alaskan sunset.