Books: The Dog Stars

book cover of The Dog StarsI picked up this book on impulse from the “new books” section at the library. I had never heard of Peter Heller (it turns out this is his first novel) and had no idea what a book with the title The Dog Stars would be about. But I liked the simple cover, with no images suggesting sex or violence.

Not that I avoid all books with sex and violence. But the “new books” section seems to be especially full of both. Perhaps it’s not the best part of the library to find good reading – by definition these books have not yet passed the test of time. But it’s a small section, right by the front door, easy to browse, and a good place to find new books by favorite writers.

In any case, blurbs on the cover of The Dog Stars promised “a post-apocalyptic adventure novel with the soul of haiku,” “a dark, poetic, and funny novel,” and “a reminder of what is worth living for.”

And while I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to a book’s cover (which is hardly ever the work of the person who wrote the book), there is something about planes and stars that suggests hope and aspiration – a yearning for higher things. In a post-apocalyptic world, there would certainly be a need for hope rather than despair. And a dog is almost always a positive addition to a book. (Maybe always, but I try not to exaggerate.)

The story is told by Hig, one of the very few survivors of a terrible epidemic. He mourns for what is lost – not only his loved ones and a normal life, but much of the wildlife as well (apparently due to global warming). He finds comfort primarily in the presence of his dog, Jasper, as well as going off into the woods to hunt or fish, or into the sky in his 1956 Cessna.

The only other human around is his neighbor Bangley, a cranky survivalist who is armed to the teeth and worries that Hig is too trusting, too reluctant to kill. Some distance away are also the “families,” a group of Mennonites slowly dying from the auto-immune disease that followed the flu epidemic. Since it is not clear how contagious they are, Hig flies out there only occasionally when they signal a need for help, and even then avoids getting too close.

The style of writing is unusual. At places it ventures into stream-of-consciousness writing, but never so much that it becomes hard to follow. Some reader reviews complain about the lack of correct punctuation and the run-on sentences. It’s true that it is sometimes hard to tell who is talking, or even if someone is talking.

But consider that Hig has hardly anyone to talk to. Mostly he talks to Jasper, which is not much different from talking to himself. Sometimes what appears to be a conversation with someone else turns out to be going on only within Hig’s mind. With so little opportunity to interact with other human beings, language becomes not a tool of communication but just a way of reflecting on things.

In a world where the only rule left seems to be to kill or be killed, what place is there for rules of grammar and punctuation? I don’t like books where techniques like this are used to make a point at the expense of readability, but that was not the case here. It is an easy book to read (even when it deals with such dark subjects, it is never depressing – though some readers will disagree).

And there are passages where I just love the way Heller describes things.

… mountain slopes bunched and wrinkled, wringing themselves into the furrows of couloir and creek, draw and chasm, the low places defining the spurs and ridges and foothills the way creases define the planes of a face …

Some reader reviews complain about the long descriptions of scenery, but I enjoyed them. Perhaps because I like such places myself, and I can easily imagine the comfort Hig finds in them.

There’s not a lot of action in the book – at least not until near the end, and that part, I thought, was less believable in terms of characters and events. The story develops primarily within Hig’s mind, as he tries to find meaning in his stark existence.

For many of us, with too much to do and often surrounded by too many people and too much noise, the idea of a simpler life is and more solitude may be appealing. But a look into Hig’s life reminds us how important it is to have family and friends, even a job and various responsibilities, however much they may seem a burden sometimes.

It’s hard to imagine having to kill strangers on sight, lest they kill us first. We want to believe in the ability of humans to get along, no matter how difficult the circumstances. But Heller’s description of the complete breakdown of society comes across as very believable, given the circumstances.

The serene bookcover notwithstanding, there is certainly violence, and even some sex near the end. The sex scenes are unnecessarily detailed but few. The violence is an essential element to the story, and the focus is more on Hig’s perspective on it than the details of the violence itself.

It’s hardly a cheerful story. But it is well-told, and it is about what is valuable in life – value we can appreciate without having to lose it first in a terrible end-of-the-world disaster.

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