The Dog Stars
By Peter Heller
Everyone loves a good end of the world story. That’s why we get wrapped up in the worlds populated by the characters in The Walking Dead or The Hunger Games. We all like to project our selves into these fantastic situations where survival is no longer a simple task. Morality takes a back seat to survival when help isn’t a phone call away anymore.
The world we find in Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is a bleak one, in a United States nine years after a super flu ravaged the country and killed 99.7% of the population. Somewhere out west we meet Hig, who with his dog Jasper and a gun-nut partner in Bangley eek out a defensive perimeter in one of those fly-in communities. Hig happens to have an old single engine Cessna, which he takes up on sorties to scout the area, relaying the location of marauders and ne’er do wells that mean to take their supplies and threaten their safety.
Warning … mild spoilers ahead …. proceed at your own risk.
Hig has had to make compromises. He’s helped Bangley kill trespassers that have come within their perimeter: men, women, even children. Hig’s consolation is in the woods with his dog Jasper, hunting and fishing what’s left in the mountains surrounding their refuge. Hig and Bangley aren’t cannibals, but Jasper does eat the remains of the bandits. The other avenue in which Hig makes his penance is helping out a family of Mennonites, who have struggled to survive after contracting a blood disease which hit survivors after the super flu left.
The first half of the book is difficult and very tense at times, and Heller does a masterful job in showing how Hig is able to survive and cope with the decisions he has to make. Despite having some companionship, Hig is alone and he mourns the loss of his wife each day. Hig is a man alone with his thoughts, struggling to survive in a world where he is willing to kill a man over a couple cases of Coca Cola. Hope for a different life is sparked one day when Hig catches a radio transmission from an airport that is beyond his little Cessna’s point of no return. Does he stay in the relative safety within his perimeter with Bangley? Or does he put himself at risk for the greater unknown?
Heller uses a stream of consciousness narrative style which I think is very effective in this kind of story. It may take a while to get used to Hig’s rhythm and cadence, but it becomes oddly soothing by the time you reach the conclusion of the story. The Dog Stars is a an intimate post-apocalyptic tale that instills a sense of hope for a future where there are no guarantees or certainties.