The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Peter Heller (2)


The River by Peter Heller

Published by Knopf on March 5, 2019

The River alternates a story of man against nature with a story of man against man. It is at times a wilderness adventure, a story of man against fire, and at other times a thriller that pits two young men against a human adversary. The novel delivers the pleasures of genre fiction while remaining a work of serious literature.

The young men have bonded over their love of the outdoors and their shared passion for reading. Jack and Wynn are Dartmouth students who work as wilderness instructors in the summer. At summer’s end, they are paddling along rivers and lakes on a journey to Hudson Bay. Guiding a canoe through storms and rapids is their idea of a vacation, risks balanced against serenity defining well-being: “life was about being agile in spirit and adapting quickly.”

Jack and Wynn eventually discover that they have a wildfire at their backs. They come across two men who are camping and try to warn them about the fire, but the men are too drunk and obnoxious to be concerned. Later, while paddling in the fog and rain, they hear a man and woman arguing. When the rain stops, they decide to go back to warn the couple of the approaching fire, but the man and woman are gone.

An undercurrent of tension comes to the forefront when they discover that the fire is larger and moving faster than they realized, placing them at risk as they approach the rapids that is their only route to safety. Before they can attack the rapids, however, they encounter the man they saw arguing with the woman. He explains that his wife disappeared during the night.

Was the woman attacked by a bear? Was she captured by the drunken men, who seemed to be exactly the sort of creatures who would kidnap a woman? The unanswered questions create a heightened sense of dread that carries the story forward.

Man against nature themes work when an author has a gift for describing both the beauty and the danger inherent in a wilderness setting. Peter Heller has that gift. Man against man themes work when the author creates a moral dilemma for a protagonist to confront. In The River, Jack suspects that a character wants to kill them and is in favor of killing the character first. Wynn acknowledges the possibility that the character is a killer, but is open to other interpretations of the available evidence, and is less willing to attack without clear proof of the character’s homicidal intent. Do they take the life of a possibly innocent person to assure their own safety or do they risk their own lives to spare someone who might be innocent?

Jack and Wynn are similar in many ways, but are differentiated by their philosophy — Wynn believes in the essential goodness of people, Jack believes in himself. The novel suggests that there are reasons to admire both philosophies: Wynn is content, at peace with the world; Jack is more likely to recognize and survive threats from others. Their harrowing experiences test their friendship by causing each to evaluate the other in a different light. Has Jack been masking a dark side that speaks to his character? Is Wynn so Pollyannaish as to place them both at risk?

The River combines the intensity of a thriller with the careful observation, astute characterization, and graceful prose of fine literature. At the end, the story produces the intense emotion that only an honest examination of life can deliver.



The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

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.