The Dog Stars is one of those books that seems ubiquitous. I spent the better part of last year passing it on bookstore tables, seeing it pop up on recommendation lists and idly imagining its contents. What could this slim novel possibly be about. Astronomy? Air travel? Flying puppies?
Well last week I got my answer. After a series of emphatic text messages from a friend—”dog stars is really good. really really good”—I decided to take a breather from my delightfully compelling (but extremely dense) NSA-related nonfiction and dive into TDS. As it turns out, the novel is about—natch—the apocalypse.
TDS is set in the not-so-distant future, about a decade after a plague has wiped out the majority of the population. Concerns about surviving the epidemic have for the most part passed, although a lingering blood disease —called, creepily, The Blood—still affects certain groups of people. (Think of it as surviving a plague, only to contract AIDS.)
Our narrator/protagonist is Hig, a resourceful pilot who lives in an abandoned airplane hanger with his “friend”/fellow survivor Bangley. Their symbiotic relationship involves Hig handling the farming, fishing and hunting, and Bangley handling the firearms. Lots and lots of firearms.
Because you see, in this version of the post-apocalyptic future, people have—morally speaking—taken a turn for the worse. The standing protocol is to kill or be killed, and Hig’s reluctant acquiescence to necessary self-defense is countered by Bangley’s almost enthusiastic embrace of it. Bangley is the muscle; Hig is the heart.
Then there’s Jasper, Hig’s dog. Jasper is in many ways what keeps Hig going—the familiar he needs in a world absent his wife (plague), his unborn child (plague) and everyone he ever knew (plague). Jasper provides the steady, calming presence that only an animal can, and the fact that he also munches on people killed by Hig or Bangley is just another indicator of the moral gray area to which one must acclimate in times of great crisis.
Of course, what makes The Dog Stars special isn’t its plot, which is reminiscent of myriad other books and movies (The Passage, 28 Days Later, The Road, Blindness, The Walking Dead, etc.) What makes it special is the voice: the understated and elegant way in which Hig describes his life, the care he takes to follow a studied routine, the quiet yearning he feels to know what else might be out there. Hig is neither ready for death nor passionate about survival. As he says on page 103: “To multiply the years and divide by the desire to live is a kind of false accounting.”
Hig’s ambivalence—contrasted by Bangley’s devotion to survival and Jasper’s innocent assumption of it—is what makes TDS both poignant and thought-provoking. Because once you’re past all the sickness and death and collapsing of modern civilization, what are you really left with? Needs to fill—water, food, fuel, safety—and time to kill. It’s one thing to survive an apocalypse; figuring out why you bothered is another thing entirely.
Even including Beautiful Ruins, The Dogs Stars is easily the best book I’ve read this year. It’s gripping and suspenseful, while never failing to be beautiful and sad and inspiring. It’s also surprisingly witty. I’m sure it will make for a lovely movie. That I won’t see. Because sometimes just the book is perfect enough.
TITLE: The Dog Stars
AUTHOR: Peter Heller
PAGES: 320 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Kook, The Whale Warriors
SORTA LIKE: The Age of Miracles meets The Road
FIRST LINE: “I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap, I foresee attacks.”