Peter Heller is an acclaimed non-fiction writer, who has accompanied international adventurers on feats of daring and risk to report for National Geographic. He is also a poet. And now he is a novelist.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a luminous, quirky book describing a horrifying time-line. A flu and “blood disease” has wiped out most life on the planet. Most. In an arbitrary fashion, some trees and plant life survive and some animals, too, but they dwindle as food and water become scarce.
And some humans live too, but in their desperation, experiencing an animal-like ultimate will to live, men, women and children become feared enemies, combatants to the death, using whatever weapons they can scavenge or invent.
Two men, once strangers, unaccountably survive and nine years After the Before they live at an airport, surviving as a team. Hig, the first person narrator and Bangley his unlikely companion form an alliance that acknowledges the necessary but opposing abilities of each of them.
Hig is a thoughtful, philosophical man, a carpenter, gardener, fisherman, beloved of the natural world, an erstwhile poet who buries memories of The Before in order to live in The After where his family no longer exists. Most importantly, he is a pilot. His aging dog Jasper gives him reason to go on, someone to care for and about.
Bangley is a survivalist, a mysterious master of guns and warfare. In another writer’s hands he might have been an NRA caricature, a monosyllabic dunce. But under the author’s guidance we see him as a man of loss and necessary silence molded by a hard past, for whom survival (his and Hig’s) becomes the ultimate achievement. His only philosophy is, “Never negotiate. All you have to negotiate with is your life.” Kill or be killed.
Hig’s optimistic nature adapts to this new reality but doesn’t disappear. He wonders why he bothers to survive but reacts to circumstances by willingly killing intruders in order to save his or Bangley’s life. He participates in the aggression that survival requires while dreading it. He buries the bodies (some small and starved) and the memories of them with unequal results. He lives for the present, horrified by the past, doubtful about the future.
Hig’s Cessna airplane is his refuge. His forays in the air invigorate him and provide respite. These excursions also provide advance warning of the dangerous marauders Out There who could penetrate the safe, armed perimeter that Bangley has established around the airport. Hig never deviates past the Point of No Return – the point at which he must turn around with enough fuel to land safely back at the airport. Until.
Until an event occurs which unravels his emotions and compels him to find out who, and what, is left outside his tiny, known, minimally-safe perimeter. He is willing to gamble this tenuous, constricted life for the slim chance for a fuller one. With no expectations but some remaining defiant hope, he takes off. His discovery will either kill him or restore him.