Peter Heller, The Dog Stars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Peter Heller might be described as a poet adventurer, a title I wouldn’t mind having on my business card. With an MFA in writing and poetry, Heller has gone to some of the most extreme places on earth, and lived to tell the story inNational Geographic Adventurer, Men’s Journal, and other journals. I first heard him interviewed on NPR this summer while I was painting a fence, and the discussion was so interesting that the paint on my brush almost dried while I was listening.

To call this debut novel post-apocalyptic would do it an injustice by lumping it into a vast and often shoddy sub-genre. It is however set in a world ten years after a flu epidemic has killed almost everyone. The few survivors are almost all armed, dangerous, and distrustful. The protagonist, Higgs, is a pilot who has three relationships left: with his old Cessna aircraft, with his dog Jasper, and with Bangley, a gun-loving and people-hating loner who tolerates Higgs because he is useful.

I found this an absolutely beautiful and haunting book. Heller writes well, as you would expect from someone schooled in poetry. In the book Higgs declares that he is a fan of American poet William Stafford, whose poems are Western, hard, sharp and yet often whimsical (see “Choosing a Dog” as an example). You can see the influence of Stafford in this book. Here’s a sample of Heller’s writing, which reveals what it feels like when a man who has been overburdened by loss and grief can’t sustain it any longer.

I stood in the shade of the tree on the cool breath of the moving water and let the sound, the light breeze blow through me. I was a shell. Empty. Put me to your ear and you would hear the distant rush of a ghost ocean. Just nothing. The slightest pressure of current or tide could push and roll me. I would wash up. Here on this bank, dry out and bleach and the wind would scour and roughen me, strip away the thinnest layers until I was brittle and the thickness of paper. Until I have crumbled into sand. That’s how I felt. I’d say it was a relief to have at last nothing, nothing, but I was too hollow to register relief, too empty to carry it.” (p. 197)

The Dog Stars was the last book I read in 2012, while I was still coming to terms with the massacre of children in Sandy Hook, CT, and listening to America’s anguished and confused debate over its love of firearms. That debate has a displaced but very real place in this book. Higgs depends on Bangley’s deadly skill with firearms because most of the survivors are, as he says, “not nice”. Bangley’s philosophy, which the NRA would approve of, is shoot rather than negotiate if that is the price of self-protection, and in this world of violence that seems like a sensible approach. Like a good liberal, Higgs however is convinced that it must still be possible to connect with other humans, and that conviction drives the second half of the book.

One my fascinations with the much in-vogue apocayptic strain in popular culture is with what it reveals about our contemporary anxieties. Heller I think is mining that vein quite deliberately, for example describing the woods Higgs walks through, where half the trees are dead from blight and beetle, and where trout no longer swim in the warming mountain streams. It’s not the barren world of, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but rather is a world that feels eerily and scarily like our own, a world that is fragile and already slipping away. And yet it’s a world that is still capable of some sort of redemption, even though God is not mentioned or even thought about once.

I happily recommend this novel to you and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts if you’ve read it. MP

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