Celebrating what remains: A review of The Dog Stars
Award-winning adventure writer Peter Heller sets his debut novel, The Dog Stars, in an apocalypse-stricken Colorado, where Hig, one of the planet's few survivors, flies around in an antique plane with a dog as his copilot. To this compelling frame, Heller adds adrenaline-pumping adventure, deep philosophical undercurrents … and a bit of love.
In the dangerous aftermath of a world destroyed by a combination of environmental disaster and disease, Hig, a small-craft pilot, has found refuge in an airfield hangar. He cooks his meals in the hangar and sleeps out under the stars with Jasper, a blue heeler mix, and a single airfield neighbor, Bangley, a gun-loving grouch with a stash of ammo. The trio must rely upon each other to stay alive, scavenging supplies, hunting and fishing. Regularly, Hig and Jasper go up in a 1956 Cessna 182 to patrol the perimeter of the airfield for intruders, whom Bangley then shoots. But after nine years of merely surviving, Hig risks all he has left and flies outside the secure perimeter, beyond the point where he has enough fuel to return, to see what he can find, to look for hope and possibility.
Such sky-high adventure might be expected from Denver-based Heller, a contributing editor at Outside magazine and Men's Journal and the author of several action-packed nonfiction books. But what's stunning about The Dog Stars is that it accomplishes the aim of its narrator, Hig, who sets out to "animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty. Breathe life in the telling." Sometimes Hig's words come out straight, sometimes in a tumbling stream, but Heller's descriptions arrive on the page filled with breathing life: "Tall grass here," Hig says, carefully cataloguing his surroundings, "tiny white asters like daisies, Indian paintbrush. Wild strawberry, penstemon. Huge ponderosas, the smell of cold wet stone and vanilla."
Besides celebrating the beauty of what remains of the natural world, The Dog Stars is also a tale of startling courage. At the same time, it's both sad and funny –– and frighteningly believable, giving readers the sense of having survived a scrape with death that provokes a renewed and powerful thirst for life.