The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

There is a shout on the cover of this book by Junot Diaz: “One of those books that makes you happy for literature.”  It is true: The Dog Stars made me happy that I am a reader; I felt a bit empty when it finished and I will go back to re-read one day.

Image result for the dog stars novel

This is a post-apocalyptic tale, set in an America where everyone bar a few people has died of a flu pandemic. Hig has survived, his wife is dead, and he lives in a small hangar of an abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper. He is not entirely alone, as he has a neighbour, Bangley, a tough fighting man with an arsenal of weapons; not a natural friend for Hig. However,  he and Bangley have each other’s backs and share food from the vegetable garden Hig keeps, and the deer he hunts in the forests around them.

This  book is also about flying, and the enjoyment Hig experiences when  soaring through the air over the abandoned landscape in  a small  1956 Cessna that he calls The Beast.

I am not grief sick nor stiffer in the joints nor ever lonely, nor someone who lives with the nausea of having killed and seems to be destined to kill again. I am the one who is flying over all of it looking down. Nothing can touch me.”

Hig has flying to occupy him, but he misses fly-fishing; he used to fish whenever anything went wrong in his life – “If I ever wake up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone every one.”  However, he most of all  misses his wife, Melissa, who was pregnant when she died of the virus.

Hig is not a physical man, not a good fighter and less so a cold-blooded killer, though he has to learn to become one to survive – he and Bangley have constantly to be aware of getting ambushed by gangs of other desperate humans.

Comparisons have been made to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, yet I found this to be a more engaging and hopeful story than The Road; not as bleak, although bleak it still is. Hig is likeable; Heller shows us the depth of his character through the depiction of his physical, mental and spiritual survival. By learning of his vulnerabilities and quirks, I liked spending time with Hig. He talks to Jasper and to himself, and philosophises while remembering life before the virus.

I once had a book on stars but now I don’t. My memory serves but not stellar ha. So I made up the constellations. I made a Bear and a Goat, but maybe not where they were supposed to be … I made one for Melissa, her whole self standing there kind of smiling and tall looking down on me in the winter nights. Looking down while frost crinkles my eyelashes and feathers my beard. I made one for the little Angel. 

Image result for fly fishing

Hig remains haunted by a voice that he heard on the radio waves, seven years after the virus struck. When on a routine flight, he called a traffic tower at one of the airports (a habit he couldn’t kick despite knowing that no-one would be there to man them). This time, though, someone answered – a faint static interrupted by a voice that faded away, someone who by his words had to be a pilot or a controller.

Three years later, never having been able to forget this incident, Hig decides to go out in search of the voice, to see if there is anything more to his existence than the small isolated life he endures. He says his goodbyes to Bangley, and flies into the unknown to meet a fate that is both wonderful and awful.

The book is written in a style that reflects the kind of man Hig is – short conversational sentences, sometimes just fragments. Initially it was a bit jarring and then it became natural. Hig is a philosophical man of tenderness living in a brutal world, who survives through forms of love – memories, flying, friendships, and his relationship with a dog. Don’t be put off by its dystopian setting; The Dog Stars is a beautiful, unusual story that ends on a note of hope.

Image result for peter heller author
Peter Heller