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'Heroes of the Frontier' is a journey without destination

In a weirdly affecting new novel by Dave Eggers, single mom Josie takes her kids on a road trip across Alaska, bouncing from near-disaster to complete disappointment to something in between.

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    Heroes of the Frontier
    By Dave Eggers
    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
    400 pp.
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Getting lost as a way of escaping from problems on the home front is an eternal theme. And it’s explored once again in Dave Eggers’s latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, telling the tale of a single mom from Ohio who drags her young son and daughter through Alaska in a rented RV.

Josie is the mom. She’s 38, she’s lost her dental practice after being sued by a cancerous patient, and she’s lost the mirage of a nuclear family. The latter circumstance stems from the shiftless father of her children embracing the Occupy movement and shunning economic stability, a mindset that causes him to want to abandon any vestige of proximate comfort.

These problems, along with the usual assortment of vexations bestowed by parenthood, leave Josie willing to try almost anything to shed her embitterment and disappointment. Like driving through Alaska with little more in mind than visiting a quasi-step-sister with whom Josie has occasional, if always fragile, uneasy alliances. Said alliances unravel in a blink, stripping Josie of any hope of stability during her ill-advised Alaskan getaway.

Josie wants to stay off the grid in Alaska. She worries that Carl, whom she thinks of as “an invertebrate” and remembers as “a loose-boweled man,” will follow and disrupt her misadventures.

Why a man who rarely pays attention to his children – even on the absent father-designated schedule of weekends and holidays – would suddenly venture from his Florida home to reclaim those same children is, one assumes, a contradiction meant to illustrate Josie’s fraying mental state. That concern, though, means Josie deals only in cash. Of that she has precious little: $3,000 stuffed in a bag and meant to last them who knows how long.

The children are 5-year-old Ana and 8-year-old Paul. Ana is, quite literally, a human wrecking ball, smashing through life without regret. (Eggers describes Ana as “a black-eyed animal with a burst of irrationally red hair” and writes that Paul “was far more reasonable and kind and wise than his mother,” a low bar to hurdle.) Paul is the responsible first-born and then some, assuming a caretaker role for his baby sister while displaying an excessive awareness of his mother’s shortcomings.

With her sensible son and mayhem-friendly daughter in tow, Josie has disappeared into Alaska. Their exit from suburban Ohio was so immediate that (First World problems alert) the only DVD they managed to pack was a Spanish version of “Tom and Jerry.”

Their enfeebled RV coughs along at a maximum cruising speed of 48 miles per hour. On one occasion, Josie almost drives them straight into wildfires. On another, an inadvertent flipped switch in the RV emits noxious fumes fueled by the worst possible source, a problem resolved only after lengthy befuddlement and suffering.

Mostly, Josie and her kids wander around, bouncing from near-disaster to complete disappointment to something in between. At one stop, an elderly man named Charlie takes them aboard a cruise ship to watch a threadbare magic show. Josie, tipsy on wine, applauds as each successive act struggles to win applause from the audience.

She trails off into despair when the night’s final act – a former mailman with an encyclopedic ability to identify ZIP codes – captivates the crowd.

Josie’s depressive tendencies take a nice turn into black humor when she imagines herself launching a Broadway production entitled, “Disappointed: The Musical.” Among other indignities, she would ply the audience with refreshments “not up to par,” put them in seats that could be more comfortable, and burden them with a show that lasts too long. Disappointment everywhere and for everyone!

On several occasions, Josie and the kids resort to squatting: in parking lots, on the side of the highway and in the temporarily abandoned log cabin of a ranger. They encounter rudeness, a near-miss threat of physical violence, and the intermittent exhilaration of scraping by while living on the fringes.

Idyllic vacations and childhoods aren’t on the menu. Of single parents, Eggers writes of “particular absurdities” such as “making money to pay children to watch their children so they could make money to pay these people to watch their children. The (single parents’) confiding in their children, complaining to them, lying too long with them at bedtime, telling them too much.”

Think of this as a gloomier version of “Little Miss Sunshine,” minus the comic relief of Steve Carell and Alan Arkin.

And while “Heroes of the Frontier” falls into the dreaded aesthetic of dramedy, it is weirdly affecting. I can’t say I really liked these characters a great deal, but their oddities and consistently poor decisions stirred enough curiosity in me to keep the pages turning.

Eggers succeeds in depicting quotidian frustrations and joys alike. Josie and her kids tour a silver mine-site that’s been closed and waltz into a closed archery range, where the kids find a few leftover bows and arrows and channel their inner Robin Hoods.

In each case – and in a harrowing dash through a roaring storm – the unexpected appearance of serendipitous joy rescues the tattered family (and the reader) from the doldrums. Eggers seems to be echoing the late David Bowie with a simple message: when it comes to finding super powers to mitigate the oppressive dullness and frustration of 21st-century life, we can, unexpectedly, be heroes.

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