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The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller (Alfred A. Knopf, 319 pages)


11/01/12



The flu has wiped out the world as we know it, killed Hig’s wife and all his family and friends, save a Blue Heeler dog named Jasper. It’s now nine years after society crumbled, and Hig is living — make that existing — in a hangar of a disintegrating airport, with a seemingly deranged survivalist his only ally in a murderous world.
 
Call it apocalypse how. But unlike shallow treatments so often churned out by Hollywood or the video-game industry, Peter Heller’s first novel is a dystopic treat, an achingly beautiful portrait of what remains when nothing is left. “You can’t metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of your gut. Muscle sinew bone. It is all of you.”
 
In staccato prose, with minimal punctuation, Hig narrates in the first person, cataloguing the routines of his new life with equal parts shock and acceptance. When life was normal, Hig was married and contented, and staying alive required little more than breathing. Now, staying alive means growing your own food, killing your own meat, and monitoring, in a 1956 Cessna, the perimeter of your turf with the vigilance of jackals. Poetry remains, however, and the impulse of philosophy, and with Jasper by his side, Hig ponders stars, invents new constellations and wonders, like every generation before him, the meaning of everything.
 
But while it invites contemplation, The Dog Stars is not a fluffy Pomeranian of a book, but large and snarly, with discolored teeth. The bones of existence are never pleasant in the wild, and Hig is such a likeable guy, so seemingly incompatible with the demands of the new world, that his actions are at times hard to stomach. But this is a man staggered by loss, not only his own, but that of the world. Eventually, we all suffer the loss of humans we love, and as terrible as this grief is, we meet a new kind of suffering here: the agony of a guy, a devoted fisherman, who finds himself in a world depopulated of fish.
 
“Melissa is not coming back, the trout aren’t either, and neither is the elephant nor the pelican. Nature might invent a speckled proud coldwater fighting fish again but she will never again give the improbable elephant another go.”
 
Lovely writing, that, but it leads to a complaint about the novel: the vagueness with which Heller dispatched the planet. We know of the devastating flu, and some lingering “blood disease” that infects nearby families with whom Hig interacts. But why these viruses wiped out elephants but left wolves in the mountains, and sheep, is never explained, and some connecting of dots would have been been appreciated.
 
But that’s a quibble. Overall, it is a lovely, compelling, thoroughly shocking and deeply moving read, one that you can’t discuss too thoroughly without spoilers, which would not ruin but lessen the book. 
 
While this is Heller’s first novel, he is an accomplished wordsmith, and has written four nonfiction books, including a memoir about learning to surf, and an account of whitewatering Tibet’s Tsangpo River. The author attended high school in Vermont and then went to Dartmouth, and says he learned to love the outdoors in New Hampshire. So although Heller is from New York and now lives in Colorado, I say let’s claim him as our own. 
 
As Hig says of a memorable meal, “The pleasure almost split me like a baking stuffed tomato.” So, too, this book. If the apocalypse is this good, bring it on.
—Jennifer Graham 





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