Nine years have passed since a global flu pandemic wiped out most of the world’s human population. Hig lives near an airport in what used to be Erie, Colorado, his only companions his aging dog, Jasper, and a gun-toting, misanthropic neighbor named Bangley. Together the three of them have carved out a small, warpedly Edenic existence among the ashes of the world – hunting for elk, growing vegetables, and repelling all who cross their “perimeter” with shocking, necessary violence. In this new world, as Bangley is fond of saying, through the crooked half-grin he wears, “Negotiate, Hig, and you are negotiating your own life…”
Grief is an element. It has its own cycle like the carbon cycle, the nitrogen. It never diminishes not ever. It passes in and out of everything.
The Dog Stars is hands-down, easily, without a fight, the best book I have read in 2012 and probably the best book I have read in several years. (Since Everything Matters! back in ’09, really, which shares a very similar thematic arc to this.) Heller’s prose took me a minute to get used to – it has a choppy style to it, as if the use of proper sentence structure and superfluous punctuation are things from a lost world that have no place in his. Yet there’s a killer, graceful beauty to it that reminds me of so many other authors that have left their impression on me in my adult life – Tony Doerr, Ron Carlson, Cormac McCarthy, Ron Currie…
We move in and out of cottonwoods which make a deeper darkness. Thickets of willows. Up the grassy slopes going pale, into a short rock canyon echoing the spilling water. Then a ponderosa forest, smelled before seen, the scent carried downstream: redolent of vanilla, like a sweetshop. These still living. The sled scrapes over the trammeled roots, exposed rock. Clusters of deer scat long dessicated. I stop, let go the bridle, and hug a big tree, standing in a frieze of sweet sage that is also paler than the night, patches beneath the trees, fragrant also and tangy. Hug the thick rough bark, nose stuck in a resined crack, inhale vanilla strong as any small brown bottle, the tree pungent and sweet as butterscotch. A time when we entered shops that smelled like this.
|“Cessna Six Triple Three Alpha feeling awful lonely”|
Hig’s world is awful – virtually every human he encounters, with the exception of Bangley and a group of blood-sick Mennonites in a nearby community, wishes to do him harm, either under the guise of survival or from an animalistic instinct to rise to the top of the food chain in the new world order. He and Bangley are under constant threat of attack – a way of life that has taken its toll on Hig, leaving him questioning his role in this new world of suffering and madness. But, like I said, there’s something else inside this man – and, ultimately inside his guarded companion as well – that is keeping them inherently human and the nose of that Cessna, with some errant turns along the way, aimed in the direction of all that is good.
There is a large degree of profundity at work within this novel, but it strikes a chord (at least it did with me), mainly because it is so easy to see this as a possible future for us. More than likely, this is what society would devolve into if a pandemic erased 99.99% of the population – everyone fighting and scrapping and killing to stay alive or to keep a hold on the small scrap of civilized world that remains to them.
And how lonely would that world be, in the moments when you, the survivor, reflect on what is happening around you? Talk about profound. Why would you keep going, keep struggling, keep fighting off packs of madmen coming to take what is yours? What would be the point? It’s some heavy stuff. But Heller delivers in such a perfect way – this is not a depressing, hopeless story, filled with marauding zombies and atrocities piled on atrocities. Hig still takes the time to appreciate the wilderness around him, the burble of the stream, the smell of the pines, the feeling of achievement from growing a garden, of flying a plane. All these are the small things that keep him human, yet he yearns for more, lured by that voice on the radio and spurred on by his grief.
All in all, this is a remarkable, beautiful, emotive book that will reduce you to tears (on more than one occasion) and make you hug your loved ones all the closer. Aren’t those the sort of things we want out of a good story, after all? A book that you can’t wait to return to, to read again for the first time. I can’t stress it enough – go to this book, read it, love it, pass it along. Repeat.