Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #1

#1: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
So. Here we are. The top of the heap. 
As soon as I read this debut novel by Peter Heller back in July, I knew emphatically, without a single doubt, that this was not only the best book I would read in 2012, but it was one of the best books I have ever read in my life.

I've been re-reading The Dog Stars over the last week, partly to revisit it a bit as I wrote this post, but also because it was such a great book, I genuinely wanted to read it again already. I wrote a long review of this earlier in the year - part of my assessment then was: "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." Sometimes it's easy to be overly enthusiastic about something while it's still fresh, but damn, as I'm reading this again, I'm sticking to it. I re-read a section today that just cracked me right the hell open. Almost lost my shit. Whew. 

Since I've been picking annual favorites for the Book Catapult, the tops have been We, the Drowned, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Everything Matters!, City of Thieves, and Five Skies. I think The Dog Stars might be the best of that elite bunch.

The story goes: 9 years have passed since 99.7% of the human population was wiped out by a global flu pandemic. Our man Hig lost his wife, all of his friends, family, everyone he knew - think about that: everyone you ever knew, ever - except for his dog, Jasper. Now they live a meager existence on the edges of a small airport outside of Erie, Colorado, (or what used to be Erie) their only neighbor a misanthropic gun-nut named Bangley. (Actually, if not for Bangley and his arsenal, Hig would most likely have been killed by someone long ago.) To keep bands of marauding men at bay, the two have built a perimeter and a guard tower, chipping away at life by hunting in the mountains, tending a modest vegetable garden, and never trusting anyone else for any reason. (There is an unbelievably tense sequence in the first act when, returning from hunting in the mountains and still too far from camp for Bangley to help with a sniper rifle, Hig is pursued by nine men with machetes.) Hig also flies a small Cesna airplane - taking it up and over the surrounding areas, ostensibly to "secure the perimeter" but really to escape the hellish confines the world has become. Periodically, he visits a community of Mennonites living nearby - they survived the flu, but were left with the highly contagious blood disease that killed just about everyone else. Hig and the group maintain an unspoken 15-foot distance for all contact, for worry of transferring the virus. "Was this hell?" Hig asks himself. "To love like this, to grieve from fifteen feet, an uncrossable distance?" After nearly a decade of this life, this spare existence with the bare minimum of human contact, Hig is getting a little tired. Numb. He's starting to wonder what the point of it - Life - is anymore.
I cannot live like this. Cannot live at all not really. What was I doing? Nine years of pretending.

Sirius A, the Dog Star. And its little blue pal.

So, he leaves the airfield and Bangley behind, flying off towards Grand Junction, CO - the origin of a radio transmission he heard once, three years back. This is how desperate for human contact Hig is. Grand Junction is beyond the Cesna's "point of no return" - when there isn't enough fuel left for a return trip. He has no idea, really, what he's specifically searching for. En route to Something Completely Fucking Different, as he puts it. He's making it up as he goes. His internal monologues are unlike anything you're used to, I can guarantee that.
What do you want? Hig. What?
I want to be the color of smoke.
Then what?
Then. Then.  
Heller's style might take some readers a little getting used to. Hig's narration is choppy and stream-of-consciousness - especially at the start - and seems to jump all over the place, but I chalked it up to just that: Hig's rambling, unhindered brain. It's almost as if there are two distinct people living inside his mind, sharing thoughts - the pre- and post-apocalypse Hig. The only contact he's had with other human beings over the last decade has involved horrifying violence or has been at an excruciating arm's length. What would that do to a man's psyche? Shit, of course he's lonely and a little bit crazy after nine years. What does he have to lose by flying off toward points unknown? His life? Who cares?

Here's the thing though - this isn't The Road or some other awful, morbid tale where people eat babies and everything ends up worse than when it started. The point of Hig's journey is to regain that semblance of humanity that he knows still resides inside him somewhere. The best part is that it doesn't live that far down in him after all - it just needs a slight prodding to bubble up to the surface and remind him that it's actually good to be alive, despite the circumstances. The only trick is getting to that point and back again safely. That point of no return.

The Dog Stars is an eloquent, perfectly constructed, emotional masterpiece of contemporary literature that I was completely unprepared for. It tore giant chunks out of me as I read it, then calmly replaced all the pieces before it was done. It has a restorative power in that way - you are thrown in to a world where humankind is at our absolute worst, lowest, most despicable point. Just as you start to think that there is no hope, no plan for moving forward beyond murder and chaos, Peter Heller shows you that all is not lost. Just over the horizon is the answer. Home is just around the bend.

www.peterheller.net: where an earlier blurb of mine can be seen sandwiched between quotes from Oprah and Outside Magazine.
More Book Catapult love
The PW review
The NPR review
Buy The Dog Stars from your local independent bookstore.

#2: The Coldest Night
#3: May We Be Forgiven
#4: This Is How You Lose Her
#5: Things That Are
#6: Battleborn
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables 

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