Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I lift my head from the pillow
I see the frost the moon
Lowering my head I think of home.

Nine years have passed since a global flu pandemic wiped out most of the world's human population. Hig lives near an airport in what used to be Erie, Colorado, his only companions his aging dog, Jasper, and a gun-toting, misanthropic neighbor named Bangley. Together the three of them have carved out a small, warpedly Edenic existence among the ashes of the world - hunting for elk, growing vegetables, and repelling all who cross their "perimeter" with shocking, necessary violence.  In this new world, as Bangley is fond of saying, through the crooked half-grin he wears, "Negotiate, Hig, and you are negotiating your own life..." 

So Hig flies. He keeps his 1956 Cessna 182 airplane - "The Beast" - in top shape and he and Jasper often escape to the air to survey the landscape from above. Once - maybe three years back - he heard a voice over the radio originating from a spot just outside of his point-of-no-return fuel range. Another human voice coming through the staticy ether that has lodged in his brain as from a place to seek out someday when the timing is right. Because despite Bangley's harsh companionship, Hig is lonely. Profoundly so - as you can only imagine being one of the last people on Earth might be. His wife is dead, all his friends and family are dead. What's the point, really? Why has he kept on these nine long years?
Grief is an element. It has its own cycle like the carbon cycle, the nitrogen. It never diminishes not ever. It passes in and out of everything.
There's something keeping him going though - not hope, probably, but something else more elemental than that. Even in the face of such unspeakable tragedy and loss, there's a force that drives him, that's been keeping him human. Maybe it's just the desire to talk to someone else, something new that will give him a reason to keep on keeping on. And that's what this story is all about: being human in the face of all that is bad about humanity.

The Dog Stars is hands-down, easily, without a fight, the best book I have read in 2012 and probably the best book I have read in several years. (Since Everything Matters! back in '09, really, which shares a very similar thematic arc to this.) Heller's prose took me a minute to get used to - it has a choppy style to it, as if the use of proper sentence structure and superfluous punctuation are things from a lost world that have no place in his. Yet there's a killer, graceful beauty to it that reminds me of so many other authors that have left their impression on me in my adult life - Tony Doerr, Ron Carlson, Cormac McCarthy, Ron Currie...
We move in and out of cottonwoods which make a deeper darkness. Thickets of willows. Up the grassy slopes going pale, into a short rock canyon echoing the spilling water. Then a ponderosa forest, smelled before seen, the scent carried downstream: redolent of vanilla, like a sweetshop. These still living. The sled scrapes over the trammeled roots, exposed rock. Clusters of deer scat long dessicated. I stop, let go the bridle, and hug a big tree, standing in a frieze of sweet sage that is also paler than the night, patches beneath the trees, fragrant also and tangy. Hug the thick rough bark, nose stuck in a resined crack, inhale vanilla strong as any small brown bottle, the tree pungent and sweet as butterscotch. A time when we entered shops that smelled like this.
"Cessna Six Triple Three Alpha feeling awful lonely"
Hig's world is awful - virtually every human he encounters, with the exception of Bangley and a group of blood-sick Mennonites in a nearby community, wishes to do him harm, either under the guise of survival or from an animalistic instinct to rise to the top of the food chain in the new world order.  He and Bangley are under constant threat of attack - a way of life that has taken its toll on Hig, leaving him questioning his role in this new world of suffering and madness. But, like I said, there's something else inside this man - and, ultimately inside his guarded companion as well - that is keeping them inherently human and the nose of that Cessna, with some errant turns along the way, aimed in the direction of all that is good.

There is a large degree of profundity at work within this novel, but it strikes a chord (at least it did with me), mainly because it is so easy to see this as a possible future for us. More than likely, this is what society would devolve into if a pandemic erased 99.99% of the population - everyone fighting and scrapping and killing to stay alive or to keep a hold on the small scrap of civilized world that remains to them. 

And how lonely would that world be, in the moments when you, the survivor, reflect on what is happening around you? Talk about profound. Why would you keep going, keep struggling, keep fighting off packs of madmen coming to take what is yours? What would be the point? It's some heavy stuff. But Heller delivers in such a perfect way - this is not a depressing, hopeless story, filled with marauding zombies and atrocities piled on atrocities. Hig still takes the time to appreciate the wilderness around him, the burble of the stream, the smell of the pines, the feeling of achievement from growing a garden, of flying a plane. All these are the small things that keep him human, yet he yearns for more, lured by that voice on the radio and spurred on by his grief. 

All in all, this is a remarkable, beautiful, emotive book that will reduce you to tears (on more than one occasion) and make you hug your loved ones all the closer. Aren't those the sort of things we want out of a good story, after all? A book that you can't wait to return to, to read again for the first time. I can't stress it enough - go to this book, read it, love it, pass it along. Repeat.

Here's a rather substantial audio excerpt from NPR.
And www.peterheller.net

3 comments:

  1. This is one of those books that will resonate with you for years to come. It is one of those 'life' books that puts things into perspective of what is really important and how you can rise above after a tragedy and hardship. I will definitely recommend this book to friends and family.

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  2. I really liked the ending of the book and thought it offered a bit of closure without presenting too perfect of a package. It also leaves the reader with a little mystery about what will happen in the future.

    I read this book obsessively until I was done. That in itself is a big recommendation.

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  3. I hadn't read this author but am a fan of dystopian lit. The most interesting feature was the words used (and not used). For me the dialogue rang true for a man who lived his life with a single other adult. He spoke in short sentences, sometimes disjointed, often rambling, and even hard sometimes to determine if what he had just said was actually said or only thought. The images of the landscapes, the others, and the rigors of daily life all felt very real. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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