Peter Heller “The Dog Stars”

post-apocalypse novel, survival novel

Peter Heller "The Dog Stars"

Fiction – Hardcover; Knopf, 2012; 320 pages.

A sweet kind of loneliness, an ode to human nature, a litmus test for the soul...

What drew me first to “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller was the post apocalyptic theme. Even though I’m not a fan of zombies or drawn out natural disasters or human carnage in any way, I tolerated the violence in this book. It was never gratuitous. When it isn’t a means to an ends, the narrator admits it.  No offence if that’s your thing, to each their own, right?

     What draws me most to this genre is that the survivors often are very strong, independent types. They are stoic not out of necessity to survive, but survive because they are stoic. Silent on the outside, but with a naturally evolved inner monologue, something as beautiful and poetic as it is practical.

     That’s Peter Heller’s style in this novel. Short. Direct. Efficient. This is the first Heller book that I’ve read, so I’m not sure if that’s the norm with him. But I like it. The other factor that makes an impression: it’s 1st person. Imagine what kind of interior monologue were to saturate your mind if you knew you were one of the few remaining humans, alone for hundreds of miles. And the rest of them were likely to kill your for their own gain. Your subconscious would no longer be necessary. You might become like all the other animals in this world? Another instinctual survival tactic I suppose.

     But stoicism is merely a tool at best (an affectation at worst). When it counts, we have to face our shortcomings and be honest with ourselves about our flaws, or face the consequences.

     And yet, survival is something we do every day of our lives, no matter the situation.

Survival is just a word that means navigate and nourish. We navigate relationships, jobs, our own little dramas. We navigate our own minds and fear, wants and worries. We attempt to nourish our souls and those of the ones we love. It’s survival because it’s not easy.

                      We have to tend to our lives, or we lose them.

     Set just outside of Denver, Colorado, nine years after some sort of flu has devastated the earth, Hig, our hero, acts in his expert routine capacity as a kind of warden of his territory: he and his “neighbor”, Bangley, have set up at an airstrip. It’s a convenient arrangement. Hig patrols in his plane, and Bangley patrols on the ground, a proficient sniper of evildoers.

     At its heart, this novel is about a man and his dog and a kind of collective conscious.  It is a meditation on the suffering the earth has experience at the hands of humans. 

Whatever killed the humans is also wiping out most of the wildlife as well, including plants and insects. The earth is growing more and more silent. It’s survivors more and more desperate.

     So that’s the arrangement Hig has with Bangley, his “neighbour”. Hig flies the plane in the dark with night-vision goggles and scouts for trespassers, and Bangley takes care of them.

     So, you might ask, what is so compelling about a man and his dog and his neighbour who guard the perimeter of their “territory” as if it were Fort Knox, shooting people at long range with sniper rifles? Isn’t reading a book like this somehow sadistic? Well, that’s really a good question, because I can’t tell.

     You get drawn in by an odd feeling of loneliness. Like that dream you had as a kid that was both sweet but also emptying of your soul at the same time: you are out playing all day long, and then you walk down your street on the way home and have the eerie feeling that no one is home. That they’ve left you behind. That you’ll be alone forever.

     I suppose that’s what makes it compelling to me. We all learn at some point in our youth that we are, in the deepest sense, alone, and that others will try to invade that loneliness, appealing to some feeling in us, only to take.

     There’s something in all of us that can nurture that sweet lonely feeling if we need to. So even if you don’t exactly relate to Hig as a person, his way of talking and feeling and constantly monitoring his mind is something we all do anyways as we navigate the loneliness in our own lives.

     Fear and loneliness are constant companions.

     Even As the anxiety of this book increases, we have someone to root for. A hero to cheer on. His fear becomes our fear. We learn to trust it as he does. Hig has lost everything, fear is the only thing he has left in his heart to tend. 

     Survival is one thing. But life, being human, is about more than just keeping your body alive and your mind sharp. There is something less tangible that we also need to tend.  In Hig’s case, how can he tend to that beautiful side when it serves no tangible purpose? When it is in fact a danger to give it any importance. 

     Would you be able to live that way?

     How would you tend to it when the world around you has unraveled, and then becomes such a threat that fear is your only honest companion? “The Dog Stars” explores that journey, that spiral, and takes you right to the razor’s edge of sanity. And you think: nothing matters. How can there be a god? This is a dark book, and things get darker.

     And then there is a light so bright that it blinds you. Washes you sweetly. Purifying.

     Can someone who has made it through to the other side with fear as their only companion, suddenly learn to trust? You find yourself as a reader asking the book that same question. You want there to be something good for Hig, something to put your hope in. But by that point in the story he’s already trained us that hope is a danger. So the question becomes:  will you allow yourself to hope, or will you stay on guard, watchful for your own soul?

     When I realized this was happening to me as I read, I stopped. I grinned big. I knew it wasn’t an accident.

     How you feel about what ultimately happens to Hig is up to you. Just know that you have been trained in something very meaningful.

     You are in skilled hands with this book. You are going to learn something about yourself.

     What else is reading for?

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