Picture this: A man and a woman meet at a party and greet each other simply with, “Hello.” Maybe they shake hands, exchange names, locate a point of commonality. One asks what the other does for a living, where they went to school, if they saw the game last night. Their connection is greased by the idea that they are one in the same, that their sense of identity is nothing more than a mirror image: They might learn they are from the same town, the same state, the same demographic. They might think to themselves: This person reminds me of myself. Or, if not myself, a family member. A friend. Someone familiar. They won’t, however, suspect that the person standing next to them was not born in this country. Nor will they question where this person’s parents or grandparents or even great-grandparents were born.
Now picture this: I am also at that party with that man and that woman. I am not oblivious but I am sometimes unaware of my physicality, what I might suggest or represent externally. Part of this is that my name and surname, which, unless you meet me in person, beguiles my physicality and all that that might represent. One of them asks me my name. “Mark,” I reply. But he or she will not necessarily ask me what I do or where I went to school next. Instead, there is another question for me: One of them will ask, “Where are you from?”
Dave Eggers’s captivating 2012 novel, “A Hologram for the King,” was both a sad-funny portrait of a man in the midst of a midlife crisis and a light-handed allegory about the current frustrations of middle-class America. His latest novel, “Heroes of the Frontier,” is a kind of bookend to “Hologram”: another midlife crisis, captured in media res — through the story of Josie, a former dentist on the run from a bad relationship and on the lam in Alaska with her two children.
The novel is a slapdash, picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age tale — “On the Road” crossed with “Henderson the Rain King” with some nods to “National Lampoon’s Vacation” along the way. It’s not as moving as “Hologram” and hardly as bravura a performance as the author’s stunning debut, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” but Mr. Eggers has so mastered the art of old-fashioned, straight-ahead storytelling here that the reader quickly becomes immersed in Josie’s funny-sad tale.
All writers have a journey-to-publication story, and usually it involves some element of struggle. We love to hear about the writer who received a hundred rejection letters; the writer who drove buses and wrote each evening; the writer who began at 75. But the truth is, these anecdotes are only part of the story. The real struggle to become a writer begins long before a word of the debut novel is written, when a young writer first decides to apprentice themselves to the craft. My own apprenticeship began at 15. And I think, though it is utterly unrepresentative, it says something about what it takes to make a writer, something that perhaps we need to talk about more.
While our powers to soothe heartbreak are limited, we offer what gifts we can. In this way, I like to think we can strike little victories against the pain and darkness that inevitably come with being alive.