Published by Knopf on August 7, 2012
“There is no hyperbole anymore just stark extinction mounting up.” So says Hig. A survivor of the flu and blood disease and whatever killed the trees and trout, Hig and his neighbor Bangley have formed a partnership born of necessity rather than friendship. Hig flies his Cessna, taking off from a runway in Erie, Colorado, scouting for trespassers who might enter their perimeter. If he spots any, Bangley kills them. Thus the men stay alive symbiotically, maintaining an uneasy peace between them.
Hig is a man with few choices left to make. His wife is dead. His dog is old. He loves to fish but only carp remain. Flying is his remaining passion, but runways are deteriorating and aviation fuel won’t last forever. Everything ends. Hig knows that but still he perseveres. Even in sorrow. Even in grief. Even when every day is filled with pain. Hig perseveres and wonders why.
Bangley is the counterpoint to Hig. While Hig wants only to soar above the world, “to animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty,” Bangley’s sole desire is “to kill just about everything that moves.” Hig has befriended and sometimes assists a colony of Mennonites, knowing most of them will die of blood disease. Bangley would just as soon help them to their deaths, thus lessening the risk of his own infection. Still, Hig longs for something more than Bangley’s uneasy companionship, and his quest to find it drives the novel’s second half.
To some extent, The Dog Stars reminded me of On the Beach -- the sense of profound loss and sadness, the search for other survivors, the protagonist’s fading hope that something good might be left of the world. Yet this is both a darker and a brighter story than Neville Shute’s, one that places a greater emphasis on evil while offering a glimmer of hope. What I think Cormac McCarthy tried to do in The Road -- reducing man to a primitive state to illustrate the eternal struggle of good versus evil -- Peter Heller does with more subtlety in The Dog Stars. Heller may even be making a mildly sarcastic reference to McCarthy when Hig says “I’m the keeper of something, not sure what, not the flame ….”
While reading the first quarter of the story I wasn’t sure I liked it. By the halfway point I was completely absorbed. Hig has gone a little crazy in his isolation and sorrow but he’s retained a sense of humor and, more importantly, his humanity. The second half opens up, combining a rapidly moving adventure with a poignant love story.
The book is written in choppy prose, not quite stream-of-consciousness but not far removed from it. It is the language of a man alone too long, a man who, talking to himself, has no use for grammar. Sentences often end with the word “and” or “but” to represent his half-completed thoughts. Heller nevertheless brings a rough eloquence to Hig’s first person narration. I doubt Heller will write it, but The Dog Stars easily merits a sequel. I would love to know what happens next.