Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
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it was amazing

Peter Heller's 2012 The Dog Stars is a 5-star post-apocalyptic novel, sometimes gritty and even shocking, sometimes tender and touching, and yet introspective and lyrical throughout.

The book's first-person narrator "is Hig, one name" (2012 Knopf hardcover, page 3). A former carpenter, Hig also is a private pilot, which is why, as the virulent flu swept the world nine years ago, after the death of his wife he retreated to a small airport with Jasper, "a blue heeler mix with a great nose" (page 9). The dog is intelligent and well-disciplined, able to alert Hig to intruders or anything out of place, yet freezing to a quivering hold at the man's quiet command. The narrator's last link to lost world of normalcy and friendship and happiness, the loyal Jasper every night "still curls against [Hig's] legs, still dreams in whimpers, still trembles under his own blanket" (page 11), and every morning still is eager to fly a patrol around the perimeter or go for a hike or perhaps just lounge. A dog like this is wonderful, but I confess I always cringe when such a character appears in a book, because the world after the fall of civilization is by definition a hard, hard place...and of course now Jasper is "mostly deaf" (page 11), and though he "used to be able to jump into the cockpit[,] now he can't" (page 24). As Hig tells us, "He's getting old. I don't count the years. I don't multiply by seven" (page 25). A setup like this makes sense, plot-wise, but it still fills me with cringing dread. I suppose surviving the death of all your other friends and loved ones, along with "almost everybody" else in the entire human species (page 9), isn't going to be a barrel of laughs, though.

And, of course, Hig is uncertain of his own future as well. Oh, the airport has more than enough avgas for the Beast, Hig's "1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut" in "[c]ream and blue" (page 4), and for the generator occasionally used "to power the saws and drills" (page 53). The 100 low-lead, Hig tells us, "is stable something like ten years" and with additives can be "nurse[d]...along for ten more years probably (page 74), just as the diodes of the night-vision goggles "will last ten years[,] maybe twenty" (page 10). As the forty-year-old Hig thinks to himself, though, "What then?" (page 10). One time, in "maybe the second year" (page 21), he even asked this existential question of Bangley, the fellow resident of the airport, whom he "guess[se]" is his "only friend on earth" (page 23): "if he ever thought there was anything more than this, than just surviving day to day. Recon, fixing the plane, growing the five vegetables, trapping a rabbit. Like what are we waiting for?" (page 21). "Gotta go" was Bangley's only response (page 21), and he immediately stood and headed from Hig's hangar dwelling back to the house he had commandeered.

Bangley may not be the most simpatico "friend" in the world, and may "not want to communicate what the death and the beauty do to each other inside him" (page 50), but he actually is the best one Hig could hope for in such circumstances. One day shortly after the collapse, Bangley "showed up" with his pickup pulling a "dry van trainer...that was full of guns, weapons of every murderous phylum, and mines and canned food and ammo" (page 53). The sardonically taciturn, tobacco-chewing Bangley "has all kinds of shit" in his armory (page 8)--in fact, if readers think too much, we might wonder how he got hold of full-auto machine guns, landmines, and mortars, which definitely could not be ordered from the local gun shop--and "[h]e has saved [Hig's] bacon" repeatedly. As Hig puts it, "Saving my bacon is his job. I am the eyes, he has the guns, he is the muscle" (page 6).

Most of the land around their airport retreat is "high plains all...directions" but one, "thirty miles," or "more than a day's walk" (page 7). In that one direction, however, there are only "[e]ight miles of open ground to the mountain front, the first trees," a space that could be crossed by a raiders on foot in "just a couple of hours" (page 7). This "distance of open prairie to the first juniper woods on the skirt of the mountain" (pages 4-5) is where Hig is especially diligent in his aerial patrols, and he "can see a lot. Not like the back of the hand, too simple, but like a book [he has] read and reread too many times to count, maybe like the Bible for some folks of old. [He] would know. A sentence out of place. A gap. Two periods where there should be one" (page 7). This is where Bangley "concentrate[s] his firepower" (page 7), using the thirty-foot observation tower from which, with "a .408 CheyTac sniper rifle," Bangley "says he can pot a man from a mile off. He has done. [Hig has] seen it more than once" (page 6). And for those occasions when someone might sneak in unnoticed at night, Hig leaves a porchlight on at one of the fly-in community's abandoned houses, which is "like a bug zapper for attackers" (page 19). Coming "[m]ostly...at night," whether "singly or in groups" and always armed, "the intruders" wake Jasper, Hig "beep[s] Bangley on the handset," and Bangley has his "sport" (page 9). If there are too many, Bangley might whisper, "Hig,...you are going to have to participate," and with "the AR-15 semi-auto" (page 10)--which, inexplicably, Heller occasionally shifts to full-auto a couple other times (pages 44, 82)--Hig reluctantly will.

Now, there are a few absolutely-stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks shocks in this book. I mean really quite shocking indeed. Hig having to shoot some fellow survivors who perhaps are little different from himself? The end of the beloved Jasper? No, no, nothing like these. There are simply some things that no one could see coming, and Heller drops them on us with wickedly deft authorial aplomb. These are part of the artistry of this novel, though, and integral to the plot, so I somehow will refrain from discussing any. Suffice it to say that the story has plenty of interesting twists, and some twistier than others. Even the inside flap of my 2012 Knopf hardcover, however, mentions the radio signal that finally makes Hig fly past his plane's point of no return in search of the source, so I can mention that. I at least will comment that the voice from another airport actually came a couple years before the plot opens, "[i]n year seven" (page 30), so...it's not something we need to expect right away. It definitely is gonna be worth waiting for, though... Trust me.

Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is tender and touching and poetical, yet also hard-edged when it needs to be. Hig is a good, well read, fairly well rounded, and definitely well-meaning fellow, and although every now and then his choices will perplex me, nevertheless he is a great narrator. From flying and fishing and hunting--and some truly rousing gunfights--through beauty and poetry and self-doubt, to friendship and love and perhaps even hope, The Dog Stars is an entrancing novel of survival, and of life itself.

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Reading Progress

November 28, 2020 – Started Reading
December 3, 2020 – Finished Reading
December 5, 2020 – Shelved

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