Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller
Completed 4/20/2014, Reviewed 4/22/2014
5 stars

If you were the one of the last people on earth after a flu-like pandemic wipes out most of the population, wouldn’t it be great if you were a rugged, outdoorsy guy’s guy who hunts, fishes, and gardens, and happens to know how to fly a small plane?  You could eam up with a survivalist who lives for guns and ammo.  You could set up an uncomfortable life together at a small airport near Denver, plant a garden, build a moat, watch the stars with your trusty dog Jasper, and keep a lookout for the only other type of people out there, homicidal marauders. 

That’s Hig, the main character of “The Dog Stars”.  He’s not really all spit and piss.  He’s actually a sensitive modern guy struggling to keep his sanity after the horrible loss of his pregnant wife and the world around him.  Despite his constant despair, he finds solace in his hunting and fishing.  He takes food to the surviving Mennonite family a few miles away, who are slowly dying of a blood disease affecting many of the survivors of the killer flu.  He struggles with the fact that he’s developed into an untrusting survivalist himself. 

One day, while doing a perimeter check in his plane, he catches a few words of a transmission on his plane’s radio.  Apparantly there are survivors at an airport across the mountains in Grand Junction.  Should he investigate?  Can he allow himself to hope that they are not like the homicidal maniacs that regularly try to invade his fortress?   What else will he find out there?

It’s a simple story, but I loved it.  It took me a while to get into the feel of it at first, because it’s not lucid prose.  Heller writes in ramblings, often fragmented and incoherent, what one might expect of a person living mostly in their head after an apocalypse.  After some initial trouble just reading these sentence fracments, I was surprised to find that I was quickly in Hig’s head, feeling his despair and loneliness, bonding with his dog Jasper, maintaining a tenuous friendship with the ammo-happy Bangley, and living in constant fear of marauding gangs.  And when I was finished with the book, I was deeply satisfied with having read it.

For such a short book, Heller’s characterization is well-developed.  What could easily be cardboard characters have depth.  Hig is often in his head, thinking about his wife, his old life, the cognitive dissonance over what he has to do to stay alive.  His only comfort is Jasper, who is not the young dog he once was.  And he loves poetry.

There’s a cynical side of me that wants to distance myself from the book because of the author.  Heller is, like Hig, a rugged, outdoorsy guy’s guy who writes and edits for “Outdoor” and “Men’s Journal” magazine.  There’s something a little Hemingway-ish about him.  Journalist/adventurer who already has it all makes it big with hairy-chested, Cope-chewing novels.  Politically, I shouldn’t like it, but I do.  It was a guilty pleasure reading this book.  I was really disturbed by the world Heller created, and I loved Hig.  When I finished the book, I was sad it had ended.      

I’m going to push the cynical, politically-correct chatter in my head aside and give this book 5 stars.  For those who don’t know my rating system, I rate books from zero to four, with five being reserved for books that emotionally moved me.  I’m embarrassed, and happy, to say, this is one of them.

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