The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Fiction – Post-Apocalyptic
2012 Vintage Books
Finished on October 15, 2014
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)
Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hanger of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper. But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.
I have a friend in Texas who never fails to recommend some of the best books I’ve ever read. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving), Plainsong (the late Kent Haruf), Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), and just over two years ago, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Had I not read Lee’s glowing review for Heller’s debut novel, I probably would have let it slip under my radar and ultimately miss out on a great read. Lee gave the book a perfect 5/5 and said:
A poetic post-apocalyptic story? This is it! This debut novel by Peter Heller is set in the Rocky Mountains after a super-flu epidemic has killed off almost everyone. This is an amazing mixture of poetic reflection, beautiful writing about nature & some amazing intense action. The hero, Hig, is an amateur pilot, who maintains the perimeter by flying patrol in his aging Cessna with his faithful dog, Jasper. His partner in survival is Bangley, a former neighbor who is a survivalist and weapons expert.
After a hunting trip that goes bad, Hig, takes off on a mission to find a mysterious voice he heard on the radio years before. The book really takes off here and Hig's life changes profoundly. At times, "The Dog Stars" is every bit as depressing as McCarthy's "The Road", but there is a sense of hopefulness that makes this a joy to read. This is a book that makes me want to go fishing and to learn how to fly a plane. It is also a book that I wanted to go on long after I finished reading.
Well, I didn’t yearn to go fishing or learn how to fly a plane after reading the novel, but it did make me want to immediately start over and read it a second time. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize Winner, The Road, in 2007 and gave it a 4/5 rating. It’s one of the grimmest books I’ve ever read and, truthfully, I didn’t care for it the entire time I was reading. But, you know, once I finished, it stuck with me and eventually grew on me. I’ve gone on to read other post-apocalyptic novels (The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin; The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey; The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier; I Am Legend by Richard Matheson; Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank), but The Dog Stars is by far my favorite. The telegraphic delivery of dialogue (and the lack of quotation marks) took some time to get used to, but the more I became engrossed in Hig’s story, the less I focused on the structure of the narrative. And of course, with the recent outbreak of Ebola, this was quite the timely read!
On Simple Beauty (and Hopefulness):
I could almost imagine that it was before, that Jasper and I were off somewhere on an extended sojourn and would come back one day soon, that all would come back to me, that we were not living in the wake of disaster. Had not lost everything but our lives. Same as yesterday standing in the garden. It caught me sometimes: that this was okay. Just this. That simple beautify was still bearable barely, and that if I lived moment to moment, garden to stove to the simple act of flying, I could have peace.Final Thoughts:
Peter Heller has written a beautiful tale about the end of the world as we know it. The taut pacing, believable (and at times, heart-racing) plot and a very satisfying conclusion make for an excellent read. This is one to own, one to share and one to read again and again.
“For all those who thought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world—think again.... Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book.” ~Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf
“Heart-wrenching and richly written…. The Dog Stars is a love story, but not just in the typical sense. It’s an ode to friendship between two men, a story of the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for.” ~Minneapolis Star-Tribune