“. . . a heavenly book, a stellar achievement by a debut novelist . . . gleams with vitality, . . . sparkles with wit.”
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a heavenly book, a stellar achievement by a debut novelist that manages to combine sparkling prose with truly memorable, shining, characters. It contains constellations of grand images and ideas, gleams with vitality, and sparkles with wit. And for a story of this ilk, it is also—a rarity—radiant with hope.
Despite the many terrible events threatening to engulf our heroes, The Dog Stars never falls into the black hole of hopelessness common in many post-apocalyptic fictions.
The titular Dog Star, Sirius, is the brightest star in the night sky. And The Dog Stars is luminous with bright ideas. It also manages to maintain its glitter even when weighed up against the heavy competition. Because make no mistake, Peter Heller is walking with giants when he chooses to tackle the post-apocalyptic theme. Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake), Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), and Cormac McCarthy (The Road), to name but three.
Indeed, Mr. Heller seems to acknowledge the similarities between his and McCarthy’s seminal work within the text, but also pulls against it. In The Road, McCarthy often makes reference to “the torch” which survivors of the apocalypse carry with them. But here, Mr. Heller’s protagonist claims he is “the keeper of something, not sure what, not the flame, maybe just Jasper.”
Jasper is a dog (another version of the titular Dog Star). He’s one of Hig’s few fellow survivors of a terrible flu that has killed practically everyone Hig ever knew. The flu, the apocalypse itself, looms like a vast black shadow over everything, but is only ever referenced rarely:
“The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day.”
And: “It was bad, I said. Ninety nine point whatever. Mortality. Just about killed everyone. . . . Infrastructure frayed then fell apart.”
We’re nine years after the fact when we first meet our Hig, and he’s trying to come to terms with his new life. He’s made a home—of sorts—for himself and Jasper at an abandoned airfield, where they are accompanied by the survivalist, Bangley.
But the new life Hig leads is often confusing. He’s had to adapt to the new, post-apocalyptic reality, but everyday something new reminds him of how things were, and how things have come to be.
For instance, he’s now learned the right way of dragging bodies. By the legs, it seems; he “discovered early on that it is easier that way than by the arms.” Farm boys get in their shooting practice on humans before they go on to the real shooting, for prairie dogs. Coke has become “Not a staple, a luxury. The way before we killed for diamonds, for oil. Not. Not today.”
Language has changed. Once Hig would have “adored a butterscotch sundae.” Now? Well he’d “kill for it . . . maybe, not even a figure of speech.”
More: “There is no hyperbole anymore just stark extinction mounting up.”
Geography has changed, too: “Surprising how fast. How fast it turns back to grass and ground. Back before, there was a TV show: Life After People. I watched every one. I recorded it. I was gripped. By this idea: New York City in a thousand years would look like: an estuary. A marsh. A river. Woods. Hills. I liked it. I can’t say why. It thrilled me.”
Hig’s desire to live life as according to the old moral codes from pre-apocalypse, and to remember, to carry hope within him, sets him in direct opposition to his companion at the airfield, Bangley. Bangley is described as Hig’s “tactical superego.” It is his wont to never do “anything that wasn’t aimed at surviving.”
It’s very much a case of: “Me versus him. Follow Bangley’s belief to its end and you get ringing solitude. Everybody out for themselves, even to dealing death, and you come to a complete aloneness. You and the universe. The cold stars. Like these that are fading, silent as we walk. Believe in the possibility of connectedness and you get something else.”
And: “Still we are divided, there are cracks in the union. Over principle. His: Guilty until—until nothing. Shoot first ask later. Guilty, then dead. Versus what? Mine: Let a visitor live a minute longer until they prove themselves to be human? Because they always do. What Bangley said in the beginning: Never ever negotiate. You are negotiating your own death.”
The difference between surviving and living is made plain, and yet, this very odd couple comes to a mutual understanding. They strike a bargain: “Without even a negotiation. No words but that. I flew. He killed. Jasper growled. We let each other be.” And indeed, Hig comes to rely on his polar opposite because: “If it weren’t for Bangley I’d forget my name.”
But Hig still requires space to breathe, space to dream like he used to. He has the soul of a poet—is a poet; had a book published pre-apocalypse—and this needs to be set free time to time. And he does this by ‘patrolling’ in the plane he calls “the Beast . . . a small plane, a 1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut.” Flying helps him to remember, and to forget: “Go fast enough we disappear.”
“And for a time while flying, seeing all this as a hawk would see it, I am myself somehow freed from the sticky details: I am not grief sick nor stiffer in the joints nor ever lonely, nor someone who lives with the nausea of having killed and seems destined to kill again. I am the one who is flying over all of it looking down. Nothing can touch me.”
Because there are a lot of things that can “touch” Hig if he lets them. Not least among them is the fact of what he was forced to do to his wife, Melissa, at the end. Because she’d contracted the flu, she begged him to suffocate her with a pillow, to end her suffering.
And he: “brought the pillow around and said I love you. More than anything in God’s universe. And her eyes were on mine and she didn’t say a word and I covered her face and used it. On my own wife.” And then, almost to compound his agony, he wasn’t even allowed to bury her. She was: “incinerated with the rest.”
This knowledge and the harsh realities of his new life have changed Hig considerably.
“I never thought I’d be an old man at forty,” he claims. When he sees himself, he sees a “ragged, burly, bearded man” who looks “all patched and tufted and threadbare like those winterworn bison.” Or else he sees a “homeless hockey player.”
And yet he still clings to hope. Because of Jasper, because of that shard of humanity drilled inside him that won’t be removed no matter what happens. And when he hears the crackly sound of another voice over the radio system at the airfield, he dares believe that there might be something else out there.
The Dog Stars is the story of Hig’s conversation with his faith, with his humanity, with his former life. By turns moving, articulate and, exciting, it is also one of those stories that remains with the reader long after the book is closed. It contains all of the lyricism of Cormac McCarthy at his best—Hig fights for “things that have no use anymore except as a bulwark against oblivion. Against the darkness of total loss.”
And he reaches for the stars. For the constellations of his memory. He looks up and not down.
“I made a Bear and a Goat but maybe not where they are supposed to be, I made some for the animals that once were, the ones I know about. I made one for Melissa, her whole self standing there kind of smiling and tall looking down on me in the winter nights. Looking down while frost crinkles in my eyelashes and feathers my beard. I made one for the little angel.”