Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is the newest entry into the post-apocalyptic genre (at least, it was when I began this review, by now it’s probably been succeeded by a dozen others), but despite joining an ever-growing list of such novels, The Dog Stars does a nice job of standing out amongst the crowd.
The Dog Stars follows Hig, a small plane pilot who took up refuge at the local airport after a devastating plague tore through the world, wiping out much of the population. Hig lives at the airport with his dog Jasper and an armed-to-the-teeth survivalist named Bangley in a somewhat uneasy convergence of interests (Hig is never sure Bangley won’t just kill him if he sees him as unnecessary, Bangley is never quite sure that Hig won’t get them both killed due to his sentimentality). But together they’ve barricaded their small refuge and for nearly a decade have held off bands of wandering thugs a la Mad Max or The Road.
Hig, though, is feeling a need for something more, though he can’t quite define it. After some set-up narrative, and a few scenes involving protecting the perimeter, and some flashbacks, he heads off into the woods with Jasper, ostensibly to hunt but really to try and reclaim some sense of himself. Here you get a sense of his past life as a small-time poet as well as his current soulfulness:
We move in and out of cottonwoods which make a deeper darkness. Thickets of willows. Up the grassy slopes going pale… then a ponderosa forest, smelled before seen, the scent carried downstream: redolent of vanilla, like a sweetshop. These still living . . . A time when we entered shops that smelled like this. Staffed with high school kids in aprons struggling to scoop the hard ice cream… Rum raisin my favorite. Melissa’s pistachio.
Things, as one might imagine in this genre, soon take a turn for the worse, and through the episodic plot that follows, Peter Heller does a nice job of balancing the typical post-apocalyptic action scenes (fighting off barbarians, risky searches for other survivors) with much more quiet, introspective scenes, such as the above-quoted trip into the forest.
Eventually Hig decides, somewhat rashly, to take off and try to find the source of a radio call he heard years ago. He doesn’t quite find what he was originally looking for, but what he does find may just reaffirm his search anyway, and his belief that the world doesn’t have to be all nightmare all the time. Rather than finding his past self, what he may just find is a rejuvenated future self.
The characterization is sharp throughout, beginning with Hig and continuing on with Bangley, who is nowhere near the simple caricature he could have been and might seem to be at first blush. The relationship between the two, nearly wholly unstated by either, is a wonderful creation. Later relationships aren’t quite so successful, nor is the attempt at romance I’d say (especially the sex scenes), but by that point I was wholly in and those few flaws didn’t bother me much at all.
While the poetic language and the frequent use of fragments may be off-putting to some readers, it’s worth getting past the possible early struggle. At first I really disliked the style, thinking I’d be tossing The Dog Stars down forcefully in about 10 or 15 pages, but the voice started to slowly win me over and after 30 or so pages, the style and voice went from a severe detriment to a clear plus.
Rather than a bleak, grim novel of the end of the world, filled with loud clashes with roving barbarians, Peter Heller offers up a much more quietly redemptive sort of post-apocalypse. It’s a different kind of end-of-the-world story, but The Dog Stars carves out its own successful niche.