Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars”

Peter Heller's "The Dog Stars"Upon being recommended Peter Heller’s debut novel The Dog Stars – and I am about to strongly, strongly recommend it to you – you might first think that it’s merely an additional helping of a story you already know: a smoky, gutted post-apocalyptic Denver nine years after an unidentified flu wipes out the population, leaving only our pilot narrator Hig to describe the life he’s carved out for himself. The elements are all familiar ones to the current literary trends: unexplainable global disruptions à la The Age of Miracles, the decimation of populations à la Zone One, mysterious and beckoning radio signals à la The Flame Alphabet, and the general, morality-shattering desperation that The Hunger Games trilogy conveys. It’s all there, just as we want it to be, since these elements demonstrate what makes post-apocalypse stories such good reads: the reset button has been hit. We are reverted versions of ourselves. And if Peter Heller’s book stopped there, it’d still be a riveting read, albeit one whose blanks we already know how to fill.

But Heller doesn’t settle for a system of blanks, a pick-your-disaster type of read that lesser authors have rushed to capitalize on. In fact, the bleak and deserted backdrop surrounding Hig in The Dog Stars serves as just that, a backdrop, to allow for our pilot’s serious and uninterrupted inner monologue about what it is to lose someone. Or no, not so neatly: Hig is faced with losing not someone but everyone, and not just moving on but having nothing left in the world to move on to, no distraction from the painful parts of the world but to survive them. In this respect, his sole neighbor Bangley serves as a welcome distraction, and Heller is careful to balance Bangley’s cartoonish tough-guy-ness with a calculatingly distant approach to Hig – an approach that the reader almost reflexively shares, since the vernacular of Hig’s narration takes some time to pick apart:

Barely anything to throw up…but still it spewed along the fuselage…what it was, that might have been me. The mortar is not a precision weapon. Bangley said he had worked out the range the angle for five spots along the trail and was pretty sure about it but. What it was, it was a big gamble he saw me getting overwhelmed and.

The use of “and” as a terminal word (and just as often used as an entire sentence) is our “in” to truly accessing Hig. It occurs nearly every page, and in each “and” is an unfulfilled expectation. What more? Are we allowed, or capable, to wait and see what’s next? Is it too crushing to think that this sustained survival isn’t a means but an end? After a decade, even the post-world world is decaying; Hig can fly his plane for now, but how long until the fuel sources run out? How long until the river dries up? How long until right now is too bleak to feign the new normalcy anymore? Heller comprises his post-apocalypse world not of immediate dangers to escape, but of potentialities that need to be prepared for and avoided, and the latter could never carry the adrenaline of the former. In that way, what we’re seeing is draining, is real, and is us, in a way that any Max Brooks book (much as I love them) never really could be.

And just as Hig’s life has been reduced to the elemental, so too does the language continue to offer these elemental bursts of reflection and commentary on a world lost:

In the yard, in the clearing, a thirty foot flagpole, flag long since gone, maybe stripped for a baby blanket. When they need help they hoist a ripped red union suit. Signal and wind sock. In a strong wind it splays legs and arms out stiff like a headless man.

Nature might invent a speckled proud coldwater fighting fish again but she will never again give the improbable elephant another go.

Fish in a barrel. Whatever other hapless metaphor for the hapless soon to be dead. I kill deer.  I have no problem killing deer. Dressing, butchering, eating.

There would be no legitimate despair, however, without Hig’s crushing moments of pure happiness. Sometimes the simple joy of his activities – mountain fishing, scouting the perimeter by plane, walking through the woods with his loyal dog Jasper – is enough to overwhelm him and connect Hig once again to the pursuits his former life may not have had time for. The time spent gutting a fish is time not spent dwelling on his countless murder victims or deceased wife or unborn child. The core of the joy in the despair (and vice versa) makes each more potent and tangible.

I’m not a crier. Not in life, not down the spine of a book. But Hig? I couldn’t even read Hig’s favorite poem on my recent Southwest flight without sniffling loud enough for the whole cabin to hear. I wondered why this might be, since it’s so rare for me, and the answer is that happiness that’s there. There is something so human about taking the pains to thank any force we think can hear us. We thank God or we thank each other. We thank the river for the fish. We thank the gun for lining up the sight. Hig’s is the journey toward articulating what makes him lucky enough to still be standing here after 10 years, much less with any sort of plan to keep that life going. Given the choice and all the time in the world to make it, death just seems like a pretty silly option to choose because you wouldn’t be able to learn from it.

What can be learned by living: what to thank, or when, or that it doesn’t matter to whom or how it is articulated; how to fire blindly; how to wait out the drought; how to dig for usefulness until it’s found and loved; how to start a life after this collapse – a life that never had a chance to see what the one before it was like. In regards to that earlier question — how long until right now is too bleak? — Peter Heller’s answer seems to be: whenever the day comes that you see the stars and can’t bring yourself to be grateful for them. And.

And read this book, and weep on a plane, because The Dog Stars will make you feel like you’ve been saved from an ending you weren’t ready for, a story you loved too much to exit.

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