Finally, a (recent) post-apocalyptic (post-trauma?) novel that manages to be both “literary” and not-a-letdown. Heller’s novel is both brisk and poignant, without stepping all over its own feet in an attempt to be something more than it is: a novel about a dude and his dog trying to survive after civilization’s collapse.
Dog Stars is set in the immediate aftermath of a worldwide pandemic that wiped out most of the human race, and effectively toppled human civilization. The humans that remain scavenge for existence, endangered not only by other desperate humans, but by a climate that is suddenly quite unbalanced without technology’s influence on the atmosphere. Game is dying out; drought makes agriculture increasingly difficult.
Hig and his dog, Jasper, live on an abandoned airfield, which Hig has fortified along with another survivor, Bangley, a hoo-rah country boy and veteran, the type of guy who was pretty much born to be an apocalypse survivor. An amateur pilot before the outbreak of the blood disease, Hig flies around Colorado in a light aircraft he calls The Beast, scavenging supplies and scouting the surroundings in an effort to fortify their home, which is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. Though primarily he does it because it gives him something to do.
Eventually Hig decides to leave Bangley and the airfield and set out in search of something, though he’s not entirely sure what. (Turns out he’s looking for a lady, any lady–though the loss and guilt he bears from mercy killing his pregnant wife weighs on him heavily.) That’s pretty much the whole plot, and if it sounds fairly bare-boned and stock end-of-the-world, that’s because it is. This is a good thing though. Heller doesn’t overdo things by trying to cram more into the novel than fits comfortably.
Instead, Heller slants his novel toward the literary with a much softer touch, and some occasionally stellar writing. (“I want to be two people at once. One runs away.”) Like Cormac McCarty’s The Road, the writing is sparse and choppy to match the bleak setting, though tinged with a more poetic, hopeful eye:
And watched the stars swim against their mesh of leaves. Like fish nosing a net.
Hig still kills when necessary (both animals and humans), but doesn’t much like doing so, and is very conscious of hanging onto his humanity. He gives supplies to an infected village of Mennonites, and he prefers the opposite approach to Bangley’s shoot-don’t-talk method of greeting other humans. As the book progresses, Hig’s acceptance of this world and his place in it is reflected in the language. This is where Heller really stands out. The sentence buds slowly begin to open, the syntaxes stretching and branching. It’s a deftly executed stylistic choice, and it nudges an already entertaining sci-fi read into a successful literary novel.