Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
When is the last time you were so mesmerized by lovely writing that you had a hard time finishing the book, simply because you wanted the reading experience to last just a little longer? That’s how I felt as I neared the end of The Dog Stars. I almost wanted to put the book down for a while just to avoid having to say I was done… Of course, I didn’t do that, because I really, really wanted to see how it would all work out.
Where to begin? The Dog Stars is a vision of a post-apocalyptic world at once horrifying and beautiful. Nine years before the start of the events in the book, a virulent flu pandemic wiped out 99% of the human population of earth. Those who survived were further decimated by an HIV-like blood disease that doomed many to a slow, lingering, miserable death. And yet, the land remains, canyons, woods, creeks, and plains, mostly empty of people now, and nature is busily trying to reassert itself even in the face of climate change and species die-offs.
Hig is one who survived unscathed, at least physically, having lost his beloved wife to the flu. As the story opens, Hig lives in relative safety at an isolated airstrip in rural Colorado, with his dog Jasper and his gruff survivalist neighbor Bangley as his only companions. And Hig has the Beast — an older Cessna airplane that he lovingly maintains, and which gives Hig and Bangley the power to protect their home turf. Hig flies the perimeter, scouting for intruders and surveying the stark and empty land. Bangley is a weapons expert, ready to shoot anything that moves. Between the two of them, they protect their home from the bands of dangerous invaders who seem to find them every few months.
Hig lives, but he’s only partially alive. He experiences joy when he flies, with Jasper in his accustomed place in the copilot’s seat, or when he tends his garden and has a moment where he just is:
I could almost imagine that it was before, that Jasper and I were off somewhere on an extended sojourn and would come back one day soon, that all would come back to me, that we were not living in the wake of disaster. Had not lost everything but our lives. Same as yesterday standing in the garden. It caught me sometimes: that this was okay. Just this. That simple beauty was still bearable barely, and that if I lived moment to moment, garden to stove to the simple act of flying, I could have peace.
But Hig remembers, too, and suffers mightily over his losses: his wife, their future together, and the world that they inhabited. Although not entirely spelled out, it’s clear that some other global environmental catastrophes have crept up on the world. Early on, we hear a list of animals that no longer exist — elephants, apes, even trout. Throughout the book, we learn of changing weather patterns and shorter rainy seasons, with drought always threatening. It’s clear that global warming is upon us, and its effects are not kind. Hig is a man who loved to fish, who appreciates nature and its cycles, and the loss of the animals, trees, and rivers hit him as hard as some of his more human losses.
When Hig suffers one more devastating bereavement, it frees something in him to the point that he decides to venture out of the safe perimeter that he and Bangley have so carefully maintained and fly off in search of a phantom voice heard years earlier over his airplane radio. What happens to Hig from that point forward is better left to the reader to discover, and so I won’t go into any more detail about plot points.
The writing in The Dog Stars is spare and lovely, reminding me of the beautiful, airy language in Plainsong by Kent Haruf. In The Dog Stars, each paragraph stands alone, with gaps in between lines and phrases. There’s space there, and you can almost feel Hig thinking in between anything he decides to say. Sentences may be half-formed, phrases are uttered but not finished. It truly feels like we are living inside a man’s head, experiencing his viewpoint and his pain through his use of language.
I could pick almost any passage to illustrate the unique writing. One example that stands out:
You hear bullets make the sound they always do in Westerns and war stories and guess what? They do. They make a phhhht like someone opening a poisonous can of soda. The Soda of Death. Like a vacuum following itself at the speed of a diving duck. Followed almost simultaneously by a little hum, a musical exclamation point.
Peter Heller is a journalist and has written several non-fiction books. The Dog Stars is his first novel, and I hope there will be many more to come. You don’t often hear a post-apocalyptic book described as beautiful, but The Dog Stars truly is. I highly recommend this literary, lovely, moving book.