The Dog Stars Humanizes the Apocalypse

By Peter Heller
Knopf, 2012, ISBN: 978-0307959942
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If you’re a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road, you’re likely to enjoy Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. Like McCarthy, Heller sets his novel in the near future, just a few years after the world has gone horribly wrong. In this case, a flu-like pandemic has wiped out much of the world’s population—think the Doomsday scenarios associated with outbreaks such as SARS, AIDS, swine flu, and the West Nile virus. Entire cities die, governments collapse, most wildlife is extinct or endangered, and the law of the jungle prevails. Heller isn’t likely to be elected a future president of the Optimists Society. In his bleak world, survivors do not bond or cooperate; the world degenerates into vicious tribalism. The astute thing to do is kill anyone entering your compound rather than risk that that person is a disease carrier. Moreover, in this Malthusian nightmare in which resources of all sort are dwindling, chances are better that a wayward visitor is part of a murderous gang seeking to capture one’s food and supplies. Or so our protagonist, Hig, is told repeatedly by camo-wearing Bangley, the crusty old coot with whom he shares a fortified compound on the edge of an airport that once served a slice of Colorado Yuppie suburbia.

Bangley knows weaponry like the back of his hand and he’s handy with all manner of tools and machines. He might be a crafty survivalist, a psycho, or a hybrid of both, but if there’s such a thing as an apocalyptic Odd Couple, he and Hig are it. Hig has the heart of a tragic poet. He is haunted by his wife’s death some nine years earlier and yearns for the days in which he fished trout from Colorado streams. There are just two things that keep him going, the companionship of his ageing dog Jasper, and at least ten-years’ worth of usable aero gas for the Cessena he uses to get forage for supplies and search for something, anything, else that might be within a tank full’s range. In fact, he and Jasper take periodic hikes into the mountains, just to smell the pines, shoot the occasional deer, and fish for about all that’s left in the rivers: bottom-dwelling suckers.  Bangley thinks he’s a damned fool, and he might be right.

This is a novel about isolation, loneliness, and the nature of humanity. What is it that makes us human? Bangley thinks it’s a full stomach and a secure perimeter, but Hig is pretty sure that humans need something beyond the mere gratification of physical needs. We pretty much know from the outset that the Cessena is the book’s Chekov’s gun, and that Hig will eventually head out to see if he can rediscover his own humanity. Some of the ensuing adventures are terrifying, some deeply affecting, others highly improbable, and a few a bit hackneyed. But it’s hard to escape thinking about the question that occupies Hig: If life were reduced to its bare rudiments, what would any one of us need to differentiate ourselves from a dog or a trout?

Do I make this book sound a bit like The Road collided with A River Runs Through It? That wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, but The Dog Stars has enough original spark to make it more than a derivative mash-up. For a post-apocalyptic novel whose title riffs off a star constellation, Jasper, the heavens, and flight (of various sorts) it also contains–dare I say it?–a lot of humanity. –Rob Weir

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