I finally read The Dog Stars by Peter Heller this past December. It had been on my reading radar for over three years and sat on my bookshelf for almost as long. I’d read a few reviews of it when it first came out, all promoting a worthy read on what seems to be the still current favorite plotline across media, the end of the civilized world. Despite its good reviews, it was that very genre assignation that kept me from reading The Dog Stars sooner, I think. What popular commentary did not prepare me for however, was the uniquely revealing, profoundly moving prose that makes the experience of The Dog Stars more than just another story about the end of the world.
The Dog Stars, first published in March of 2012, was the first work of fiction by Peter Heller, already a bestselling author of non-fiction, as well as an award-winning adventure writer and NPR contributor, among his many accomplishments. The novel is considered postapocalit—you know, that kitschy catch-phrase contrived by the criticism industry to include works set in the post-apocalyptic wilderness of what will become Mother Earth after humans do something so radically screwed up and fatally catastrophic it brings on the end of the known world, society crumbles, and its resurrection is the dire dystopia of all of our combined doomsday prophets while the few survivors left struggle to live out what’s left of their sorry little lives under the daily and dismal yoke of this virulent new expression of what’s left of society—yeah, all that. It is set nine years after such an apocalypse, caused by a flu pandemic at the end of the twentieth century, wipes out over 99% of the Earth’s population.
We are introduced to Hig, hero of the story, who talks to us, (in first person) and at us, (in second person, too) directly. Hig. One name, he tells us. Big Hig if you need another. Hig has lost everything to the pandemic, except for Jasper, his dog, proclaimed soul mate, best friend, last remaining link to his old life; little brother, Hig calls him. And, the reader feels it.
At the tail end of the pandemic, Hig, an amateur pilot whose passion is fishing, retreats to the hangar at Erie, the local airport where he keeps his 1956 Cessna. Here he lives with Bangley, his commando survivalist neighbor, who, Hig tells us, just showed up one day in his old truck with an arsenal of firepower. Hig and Bangley have set up a 9-mile “perimeter” around the airport to protect their “homes” against unwelcomed outsiders. And, unwelcomed outsiders there are. It’s a man-eat-man world now. The only way to survive, we’re told, is kill or be killed.
Did you ever read the Bible? Hig asks on page one. Check out Lamentations. That’s where we’re at, pretty much. Pretty much Lamenting. Pretty much pouring our hearts out like water.
This is Hig, survivor, poet, fisherman, pilot, lover of life, man still running amuck in grief so thick, yet keeping alive hope in a future different than that which is his present, with people and a peaceful coexistence, instead of the violent barbarism he has come to know.
He is a character wide and far away from his shoot-and-ask-questions-later companion Bangley.
And here, amidst these ruins the novel begins. Into this landscape of so-called apocalit, Heller weaves the intricate and luxurious word journey that is really The Dog Stars.
At first, Heller’s prose comes at the reader in bits and pieces, disjointed, like a jigsaw puzzle needing order, leaving the reader adrift and questioning. Even the dialogue is devoid of quotation marks. And yet, this tactic exactly mimics not just the subject matter of the book, which is the rubble of life after annihilation, but the obvious PTSD of its hero, as well. Hig’s words come at us, off the page, out of sequence, as he talks to himself, reliving, retelling, relating. Jumbles of thoughts about the past and the present pour out of his head in what feel like disconnected fragments, phrases, one-word sentences. One word paragraphs, too. Paragraphs, sometimes, beginning and ending with only and.
The reader is left hanging, confused, annoyed—expectant.
But, how else does inner dialogue work, really? How else might one talk to oneself, or one’s only trusted companion, in this case Jasper, the dog? It becomes evident that Hig’s words are all of what is left to him. Hig is exposing his world to us; his inner confusion is a mirror to the outer-world of chaos around him. In this way, Heller weaves a narrative that brings the reader directly into the mind and utterly devastating experience of its hero. And, it works.
As one continues to read, one gets to know Hig and his world intimately. What emerges is a collection of prose stark and poetic that works together to bring the visceral quality of warmth and belief to the words on the page. Indeed, there are moments when The Dog Stars reads more like narrative verse than fiction:
It was like I was living in a doubleness, and the doubleness was the virulent insistence of life in its blues and greens laid over the scaling grays of death, and I could toggle one to the other, step into and out of it easily as I might step into and out of the cold shadow of the hangar just outside. Or that I didn’t step, but the shadow passed over like the shadow of a cloud that covered my arms with goosebumps, and passed.
Life and death lived inside each other. That’s what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains. And life was inside of death, virulent and insistent as a strain of flu. How it should be.
The Dog Stars is far less a story about the end of the world and much more a vessel for a story about the hope of man from the soul of a poet. Heller, through Hig, is that poet.
In this way Peter Heller lifts the story out of its perceived genre, and makes it one of enduring appeal. Mr. Heller holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in both fiction and poetry, and it is obvious in every nook and nuance of The Dog Stars, that he is a writer’s writer. His phrases puncture and flood the reader’s reality as poignantly as they free flow in rhythm to the thoughts of hero Hig as he struggles to survive, reinvent himself, and find his sense of place in a world he used to call his own.
The Dog Stars is a novel that is at once an elegy for a past gone, an ode praising a present left, and a heartwarming ballad that reminds us to seize moments and learn living without fear.
Books like The Dog Stars are more than just ‘worthy reads.’ They transcend genres and fads; they are perennial. They exist in time and space waiting for us to find them, fire up the synapses in our brains as we open up its pages to read, and journey there in spirit with them.
M.G. Poe grew up in Miami mostly but now lives in Los Angeles. She once earned her living as a hackney for the radio industry, and is not ashamed to say she can still crank out copy on demand in less than 40 minutes. When not writing, she spends her time balancing the demands of the world while continuing her quest for personal harmonic convergence and a permanent return to the Bay Area. She is currently working on a sci-fi novel involving time-travel, and the multi-universe. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and BAs in Telecommunications Management and Photography from FIU. She is also an award winning jewelry designer producing works under Mac Originals.
For her further musings on life catch her blog, Life Re-Viewed, at 308CherryLane.wordpress.com or Tweet her at @ArbitraryPhoton.