A Journalist's Archive

The Dog Stars
Peter Heller
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          “Postapocalyptic novels are never warm and fuzzy stories. Trust and human kindness fade away quicker than food and gasoline supplies. Bands of bad guys make the wild west look like a church picnic. Then there’s Hig, who does what is necessary to survive, yet maintains enough humanity to still see beauty in a devastated world. “The Dog Stars,” provokes many introspective moments, as Hig flies over the depopulated landscape of Colorado with his dog, Jasper. Can a dreamer exist in an environment where raw animalistic instincts prevail? Under similar circumstances, what would we become?
          When 99 per cent of the country’s population succumbs to a virulent strain of bird flu, those remaining scramble to survive. Only cunning, ruthless, well-armed people live to see another day. Unless, like Hig, you have a skill that a maniac is willing to protect.
          Bruce Bangley, a heavily-armed malcontent with ice running through his veins, observed an old Cessna flying overhead shortly after civilization collapsed. He tracked the pilot and plane to the Erie Airport , once surrounded by an exclusive subdivision designed for pilots, with solar powered McMansions, private hangers, and taxiways. Together they form a shaky alliance.
          As Hig puts it: “I have the plane, I am the eyes, he has the guns, he is the muscle.” It’s now nine years since the outbreak of flu that “killed almost everybody,” including Hig’s wife, Michelle. A strange blood disease followed, decimating more; it still wreaks havoc on the only other permanent residents within 100 square miles, a small group of Mennonites.
          Society and culture are now meaningless words.  Nature took a big hit too. Forest fires blaze unabated, most of the birds are gone, trout no longer exist, elk haven’t been seen in years, only rabbits, rats, and a few herds of deer manage to escape extinction.
          Author Peter Heller is a contributing editor for Outside magazine and has written five non-fiction books. “The Dog Stars” is his first attempt at fiction and the inspiration for the protagonist, Hig, came totally from within. Heller lives in Denver, loves nature, fishing, and flies a plane out of the Erie Airport. And both he and Hig are big fans of the series, “Life after People.” Therefore, it’s safe to say this novel is Heller’s “what if” exploration of a world none of us really want to experience.
          The entire book is written in short, uncomplicated sentences; the modus operandi for postapocalyptic stories. Evidently when culture dies, so too does complex prose. It takes a brilliant writer to make simplistic sentences evoke horror, laughter, and tears, and Heller does that amazingly well. He packs all the necessary evils into “The Dog Stars” to create  realistic, edgy, action-packed scenes. But I was thankful for the respites: Hig’s forays into the mountains, and the flights over familiar landscapes with Jasper serving as copilot.
          “The whole time I fly I talk to him, and it amuses me no end that the whole time he pretends not to listen,” Hig said. Upon landing, he gently lifts the aging dog out of the plane. The affection Hig displays for Jasper plays a vital psychological role in this story, adding both warmth and hope to an otherwise depressing situation.
          Even though the world has drastically changed, Hig habitually sticks to the rules governing all pilots. He routinely does his pre-flight checks, and laughingly calls local airport towers before landing. Strangely enough, after nine years, someone in the Grand Junction tower responds to his call. Does civilization remain in Western Colorado? Doubtful, but love does.
          The novel ends with a surprising twist. However, upon reflection, it ends almost as it began. With a promise that love and compassion still exist, but with the very real fear that evil may triumph. In that respect, is Heller’s postapocalyptic world much different from our own? I highly recommend reading “The Dog Stars” to answer that question for yourself.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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