Read This: The Dog Stars

Peter Heller
photo: Tory Read

Earlier this summer, I began writing the occasional book review for the Dallas Morning News; my first article was about David Dufty’s How to Build an Android, an account of a university computer science lab’s effort to build a robotic simulation of Philip K. Dick. (And it worked, too, at least until they lost its head…)

For my second Morning News piece, I keep up the science fiction vibe with a look at Peter Heller‘s debut novel, The Dog Stars. Here’s how I described the context of its publication:

In a little over a half century, life after the end of the world has subtly shifted from a topic fit mostly for science fiction, as in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) or Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz (1960), to the stuff of top-shelf literary fiction, most notably Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).

The Dog Stars positions itself squarely in the latter camp. Although there are scattered references to the superbug that set the novel’s disaster in motion, including a rumor that it might have been a biological weapon, Heller’s focus is firmly fixed on Hig and his shifting emotional state.

Hig is the novel’s 40-year-old narrator, a widow who lives in an abandoned Colorado airport with his aging dog and a sharpshooting survivalist named Bangley. Bangley drives Hig nuts, but he also keeps the two of them alive, and Hig can always get away for a couple days in his small plane. His frustration mounts, though, until one day he sets out after a possible hint of other survivors… As I put it, the book “can feel less like a 21st-century apocalypse and more like a 19th-century frontier narrative… [with] echoes of Grizzly Adams or Jeremiah Johnson,” including some intensely violent scenes. But it’s also a book of “quiet, poetic beauty,” driven not by the plot device of the end of the world but by Hig’s voice. I’d actually set this book aside when I first heard about it, because I didn’t feel up for another literary run at science fictional themes at that moment, but I’m glad that the Morning News encouraged me to take a second look—this is a great story, and I’m interested now in tracking down some of Heller’s nonfiction writing.

29 August 2012 | read this |