Pocket Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars
Peter Heller
Knopf, 2012

Everybody’s got that secret genre that does it for them, am I right? Pirate tales, British cozies, sparkly vampires, or some combination of all of the above—hell, that would do it for anyone, come to think of it. Even the most diehard literary snob has some embarrassingly tangible brand that, fetish-like, turns their crank.

For me, it’s post-apocalyptic fiction. My love of the genre dates back to discovering Harlan Ellison’s novella “A Boy and His Dog,” in his collection The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, when I was 13 or 14. Which was probably a logical extension of those orphans-in-boxcars novels I loved as a little kid—that secret orphan fantasy ran deep, apparently (and some of us even got to live it out, to no small degree, by going to boarding school). As a teenager and young adult, the scenario appealed to me on some personal level because I saw myself as tough enough to survive anything, even the end of the world as we know it—I could grow vegetables and shoot a gun and tie good knots, and I would barter heroin and cigarettes for penicillin, and… oh, you get the picture. It was better than thinking about my shitty grades.

And now, as a not-young adult, what I love about apocalypse stories is that they’re just like real life: everybody dies. And even though the goal, in both the real world and the end-times novel, is to remain standing, to do that you have to watch everyone else you love succumb. Middle age will make you maudlin like that. So what better way to internalize those fears than a tale where everyone goes in one fell swoop, and your hero or heroine has to deal with all that pain at once? I don’t know, there’s something vaguely companionable about the whole scenario.

In that sense, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars does not disappoint. It’s a good solid story of the post-apocalypse world, nine years since most of the population has died of a superflu. Our narrator, Hig, is a former contractor now homesteading the Colorado airport where he keeps his beloved ancient Cessna, nicknamed The Beast. Hig lost his wife and unborn child in the epidemic, and he toggles between a kind of tamped down grief and hyper-alert survival mode, keeping the perimeter secured with the companionship of Jasper, his trusty blue heeler mix, and the tactical help of a grizzled old gun nut named Bangley. Pretty much everyone left is either ill with some kind of autoimmune virus they call the blood, or is predatory and mean as hell. Bangley takes the hard line—kill ’em all, since God already seems to have sorted ’em out—and protects them via a vast artillery of firepower and a homemade sniper tower. Hig, though, is a sensitive guy. He was a poet once, a hunter and a trout fisherman as well, and he elegantly mourns the rapidly warming world he’s left with:

Like living in a hangar sleeping outside, I can pretend there’s a house somewhere else, with someone in it, someone to go back to. But who’s kidding whom? Melissa is not coming back, the trout aren’t, and neither is the elephant nor the pelican. Nature might invent a speckled proud coldwater fighting fish again but she will never again give the improbably elephant another go.

He has trouble, too, reconciling their survivalist lifestyle with his essential need to make real contact with someone, anyone. And eventually this yearning drives him over the mountains in his little prop plane in search of fellowship.

Sound familiar? Yeah. Let me get this out of the way: The Dog Stars is nothing if not predictable. The hero is tough but gentle, conflicted about what this bad new world has made of him. The good guys are old and sinewy ex-military men, tough as nails but deep-down decent. And the eventual woman is tall, beautiful, skittish but kind—just once, please, could we see a post-apocalypse scenario where the last woman was 75 pounds overweight, shrill, conservative, and had just gotten fired from WalMart for stealing before the end came? Enough with the willowy, clever doctors. The dog is, of course, loyal and good. Doesn’t even pee in the plane when he goes flying.

That said, The Dog Stars is also nothing if not entertaining. One of the comforts of genre is its prospective familiarity, after all. In a world of unpredictability, both this one and the post-superflu version, it’s not a terrible thing to have an idea of how events will play out. Heller has a gentle touch, and Hig’s odes to what he loves—flying, fishing, the woods, his dog—are genuinely moving. This is a good argument for writing what you know; Heller, an outdoorsman himself, has been taking notes, and we’re the richer for it.

Two coughs, two half spins of the prop and I shoved the throttle forward and she caught and roared and shuddered. We all did…. A small plane coming to life is emotional. It’s like a whole auditorium standing for an ovation. It’s grand and a little frightening. I pulled the throttle back to an even idle which was quieter, less momentous, less shake and more tremble. Let the engine warm a little, watched the dial of the oil pressure gauge ease down into the green.

So really, I’m not going to quibble with the story arc because I had a good time with The Dog Stars. If the relationship between Hig and his dog is more believable and nuanced than the one between him and the woman, you won’t hear me complaining. And there are enough genuinely jarring moments scattered throughout the Road Warrior-esque bad guy encounters to keep it interesting—most notably an elderly trophy-hunting couple, painted toward the end in a few spare and chilling sentences that made my skin crawl. A whole novel’s worth of such jaw-droppingly awful encounters might have been too much. Hig’s voice, easygoing despite its choppy stream of consciousness, carries the story along with a good dark humor, even if his philosophical asides tend to lean toward observations like, “Amazing how not having to kill someone frees up a relationship generally.” And his musings strike a the right nihilistic chord for the subject, or perhaps more for the reader’s—OK, this reader’s—involvement with it:

I really didn’t give a shit what this old bastard did to me. Nothing to lose is so empty, so light, that the sand you crumble to at last blows away in a gust, so insubstantial it’s carried upward to shirr into the sandstorm of the stars. That’s where we all get to. The rest is just wearing thin waiting for wind.

Indeed. And while we’re waiting, why not read something that might not shake us to our foundations, but that keeps us entertained and deflects attention away from the inevitable ends of all we hold dear? It’s more fun to think about everyone else’s. That’s what fiction does, and that’s what The Dog Stars does, and that is just fine with me.

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1 Comment to Pocket Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

  1. Margarita's Gravatar Margarita
    October 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Lisa, you know I was waiting for this one – a great review and a book I am looking forward to read before this month runs out. A good read while I look up at the stars in the North Country and vicariously partake of survivalism.

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