Thursday, September 13, 2012

Peter Heller Charts Out The Dog Stars

The details of the super flu that ravaged humanity are never flushed out, but that hardly matters in Peter Heller's debut fiction novel The Dog Stars. The post-pandemic novel fully realizes its principal character, one of the few survivors trying to stay alive in an unforgiving and savage world.

Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knew, except his fiercely loyal dog Jasper. Now, nine years later, he has settled into what has become a new normal that doesn't sit well with him. His only human friend, a mysterious survivalist named Bruce Bangley, seemed better suited for it.

Bangley's resolve is firm. Never negotiate. Kill anyone who comes within a half-mile. No questions. No apologies. No guilt.

The Dog Stars is a literary gem about humanity and hanging on to being human.

Hig and Bangley have staked out a small country airport and training field, surrounded by a small housing development similar to a golf course community. Hig had gravitated to the airport because it is where he kept his cream and blue 1956 Cessna 182, which he affectionately called "The Beast."

Bangley just showed up one day with a truck and an arsenal. His most used is a .408 CheyTac sniper rifle. Hig has an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, fitted with a night scope. Bangley brought much more with him than a few rifles. He could arm a small company.

Despite only having each other, the relationship is strained because Bangley is untrusting, short-spoken, and not looking to forge any attachments. They have an arrangement instead. Hig flies his plane around a 30-mile perimeter, sometimes dropping rocks with notes on them to warn people away. "Turn Back South Or Die" and "Turn Back North Or Die," they read. Bangley kills people.

Hig contributes in other ways too. He maintains a small garden, takes hunting trips, and occasionally goes fishing despite Bangley's insistence it is a waste of time or "recreational." For Hig, however, the trips are therapeutic, a means to fight off his chronic sadness, isolation, and guilt over killing people.

They have little choice. Most of the people left aren't nice. When they see an airport off in the distance or a light in the night, they only see a potential source of water, fuel, shelter, sustainable power, and maybe food. The few times Hig tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, he was nearly killed.

The unexpected, infectious qualities of a deeply visceral novel.

With the exception of his now aging dog Jasper, Hig is largely on his own despite their shaky alliance. The only other contact he has is with a small community of Mennonites who live about 10 miles away from the airport. They survived the flu, but have since became infected with a blood disease that came afterward.

Hig visits them time to time to trade seeds and supplies, but has other reasons too. He longs for companionship and the ability to show compassion. He misses morality and humanity. He desperately wants someone to prove Bangley wrong and find someone who just isn't out for themselves.

Much of the visceral novel is like that, plodding along with its poetic and haunted internal struggle. The ramblings frequently come across as a memoir written by a survivor and discovered years later. So while the book does paint a vivid description of a post-pandemic world and a planet attempting to shake off global warming, it could just as easily stand on its own without the fracture of civilization. However, making it what it is brings something else to bear throughout-- several tense and suspenseful contacts.

It's surprisingly touching too. Even when events prompt Hig to chase down a random radio transmission he once picked up from Grand Junction, Colorado, both men recognize how important they have become to each other, like two brothers from different generations with nothing else in common except living together for nine years.

The realization sets in because in order for Hig to investigate Grand Junction, he has to fly beyond his point of no return. And even if there are survivors who don't kill him, there is no guarantee they will have unspoiled or additive-laced fuel for Hig to fly back.

A brief about author and adventure writer Peter Heller. 

Peter Heller is no stranger to the subject matter despite the fictional setting. He has years of experience as a veteran adventure writer, working for NPR, Outside magazine and National Geographic. Many of his previous books provided captivating glimpses of survival, including trips to Antarctica and Tsango Gorge in southeastern Tibet.

There seems to be little doubt that although he accompanied others on these excursions, the solitude and scarcity of resources of such extreme areas contributed to his ability to capture such deep self-reflecton and an appreciation for capturing breathtakingly physical visuals. In other words, The Dog Stars feels more real than made up in coming to know a man who is forced to survive in solitude.

The Dog Stars By Peter Heller Shines 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Named The Dog Stars because Hig had made up new constellations to replace those he had forgotten, every stitch of it is a complete and purposeful character portrait about a man who regrets the way he has to live while remaining hopeful despite despair. While originally concerned that the desolation and introspection would eventually run out of fuel, it wasn't long before I found myself wishing the book wouldn't end.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is available on Amazon. The novel is also available at Barnes & Noble and can be downloaded for iBooks. The contribution by Mark Deakins as narrator of The Dog Stars audio version goes beyond memorable as Hig, Bangley, and other characters. Deakins not only captures the voice of Hig, but also his state of mind.
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