The Dog Stars is a novel about an apocalyptic future where civilization as we know it has thoroughly disintegrated and where the few survivors are coping day to day. Since I reluctantly read science fiction, I didn’t expect to enjoy a book with this formulaic story line. But years ago I genuinely appreciated George R. Stewart’s 1949 novel, The Earth Abides. Set in Berkeley, California, Stewart’s story traces the gradual disintegration of all things mechanical and shows the surviving families progressing backwards, necessarily embracing a more primitive life style because they don’t know how to make repairs. More recently, I found myself enthralled by Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road. Its key characters wander through a cataclysmic landscape, seeking salvation as they stumble and crawl toward the sea, moving erratically across what was once the southeastern United States. Now I’ve just finished Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which brings crucial aspects of Stewart’s and McCarthy’s two narrative patterns together in a most satisfying way. Unbelievably, I perhaps liked it better than its two predecessors. That puts Heller in very good literary company indeed.
The Dog Stars takes place outside a ruined Denver, Colorado. Two men have built a fortress for themselves alongside a suburban airport. Hig has salvaged his Cessna, so he can make successful sorties by air across the neighboring mountains and plains. Meanwhile, his companion, Bangley, with a warlike disposition and an affinity for firearms, protects the home front. Tiring of his circumstances after nine years, Hig decides to fly as far as he can away from his haven, looking for some indefinable something, gambling that he will find a way to refill the Cessna’s gas tanks when the need arises, leaving Bangley behind. In other words, The Dog Stars allows its survivors to create a quasi-home, then sends one of them along an airborne road to somewhere else. In the face of utter disaster, which is better? To stay put or to seek the unknown? A profound and provocative answer can be found in the pages of The Dog Stars.
Heller writes his apocalyptic tale in language that imitates the chaotic destruction of the novel’s surroundings. I originally intended to write this review in diction and syntax that mimicked Heller’s prose, but soon discovered that this was easier imagined than accomplished. So here is a paragraph in his words, not mine: “In the old cycles the drought would break, the monsoon would come, the snows would sweep in, and the life would come back. How was a mystery. To me. The trout, the cutthroat that had been here longer than us, the leopard frogs and salamanders, somehow they would return the next year. From where? Maybe in the gullets of birds I don’t know. Not now. Probably.” His staccato style languishes, then explodes, stretches out, then explodes again into tiny fragmented thoughts. In effect, Heller’s style echoes Hig’s own thought processes, which stagger and stumble and soar. Without question, the writing drives the narrative effectively. I couldn’t put the book down. And I expect I missed some of the profundity of Heller’s thinking because I was so caught up by the characters and their actions and the insistent literary style. For someone who usually doesn’t care for futuristic fiction, that’s saying quite a lot. The Dog Stars is an excellent first novel that I strongly recommend. -A.R.
Be sure and check out Peter Heller’s non-fiction: In This Corner . . .!: Forty-two World Champions Tell Their Stories (1994); Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story (1995); Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River (2005); Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet’s Largest Mammals (2008); Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave (2010).