Post-apocalyptic stories are nothing new. They can range from the “cosy catastrophe” (Day of the Triffids) to the action adventure (the Terminator universe) to the soul-crushingly bleak (The Road), but can a tale of the world after the fall of civilisation really be life affirming? Well, that is what Peter Heller’s new book The Dog Stars is billed as: a novel about the end of the world that makes you glad to be alive. The cynic in me raised an eyebrow at this description, but got stuck into reading it nonetheless.
Set in the near future, The Dog Stars shows us a Colorado nine years after an influenza superbug wiped out most of humanity and a lingering blood disease that came in its wake weakened many of those who remain. Our narrator is a man known only as Hig, a thirty-something widower who lost his pregnant wife to the flu, and retreated from the collapse of civilisation to the rural airfield where he keeps his pride and joy: a 1956 Cessna plane. Initially with only his faithful dog Jasper for company, he later forms an uneasy but mutually beneficial partnership with gun-toting misanthrope Bangley. The post-disease world is a dangerous place, and working together Hig can patrol the borders of their safety zone in his plane, while Bangley keeps the two men safe from intruders with his sharp-shooting skills. They grow some plants for food; fish and hunt in the nearby mountains; sleep in the open to avoid being corned by the nocturnal raiders who threaten both their resources and their lives. All is as well as things could hope to get in such a dangerous and unpredictable new world, until Hig patrols further than usual one day and picks up a sliver of a message on his plane radio. This is a tantalising glimpse into a life something like what he had before: company, society, hope. Should he leave what he knows to seek out the broadcaster or stay safe but lonely at the airfield with Bangley?
The Dog Stars is certainly an unusual read. A story of great destruction, loss and fear with the soul of a poem, it is written in a sparse style that I found hard to adjust to at first; Hig is a man who can describe the natural world that opens up under his beloved Cessna with great beauty (“the current was silver and black twining, like mercury and oil”), but is also someone who doesn’t feel a great deal of need for descriptive narrative. Or speech marks. This adds to the atmosphere of the book once you become accustomed to reading it, but for the first couple of chapters I will confess that I found it infuriatingly difficult to get the hang of. I almost gave up on the book during chapter one because of this presentation of text, but I am now very glad that I stuck with it.
This book is for the most part surprisingly quiet and gently paced for a story set in a post-apocalyptic world, but this makes the action when it happens a more intense and powerful experience for the reader. I guess anybody who has seen The Walking Dead will understand this feeling: an unexpected surge of violence after 58 minutes creates more of an impact that an hour of running battles does. This book also creates a real sense of curiosity to know more about Hig’s world. We end up learning little about what happened to humanity because Hig likewise knows little, although tantalising observations, particularly towards the end of the story, offer real food for thought. From some writers you could read this as the story being left far enough ajar for a sequel to be fitted in at a later date, but here I am not so sure. This was an accomplished first novel, but I somehow doubt Heller will give us another installment of Hig’s life (although I would very much like to be proved wrong on this count).
All in all a frustratingly written and rambling start that builds up into a very likeable book – which really does offer a new perspective on this well-trodden genre. Does it make me feel glad to be alive? Well, I doubt that my life is any more affirmed now that it was a couple of evenings ago, but I sure am glad that I live in a world that still had electricity, the internet and Diet Coke, and that nobody is trying to kill me on a regular basis (drivers of premium cars on my morning cycle to work notwithstanding).
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