The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf; 336 pages; $24.95).
The End Of The World As We Know It does not necessarily mean The End. In The Stand, Stephen King unleashed a flu epidemic, “Captain Tripps,” onto mankind, killing billions. Some possessed a natural immunity to the disease. These survivors were central in the fight between good and evil. In the end, Las Vegas and the “Darkman” were obliterated, but life went on.
Cormac McCarthy also wrote about The End Of Time. In his bleak and powerful novel The Road, an unnamed father and son journeyed through a post-apocalyptic and utterly unrecognizable landscape. McCarthy used nuclear war instead of a disease but his characters also struggled, this time against angry survivors who were hell-bent on making a new world as they saw fit.
Yet, in both these ravaged and savage landscapes, pockets of humanity still existed; hope lived on. As it does in Peter Heller’s transcendent and beautifully lyric debut The Dog Stars.
Nine years before The Dog Stars begins a flu epidemic wiped out most of the world’s population. Think something like this is just fiction? Look up the 1918 Spanish flu, and I guarantee you will get chills. In Heller’s story, a superbug mutated and combined with bird flu. The first cases of the Africanized bird flue appeared in London; in all likelihood, though, the virus originated at a national weapons lab. Not long after, the flu had spread everywhere. Chaos erupted. If flu were not enough, another catastrophe got added to the mix. A blood disease similar to HIV wreaked havoc on those who survived the flu.
You can imagine the kind of world left behind. It’s a kill-or-be-killed existence, something Heller’s protagonist, Hig, knows all too well. As Heller writes, “Old rules are done Hig. Went the way of the woodpecker. Gone with the glaciers and the government. New world now. New world new rules. Never ever negotiate.”
Hig is an “old man at forty” who lost his wife and their unborn child to the flu. Hig’s narrative is unconventional as Heller uses flashbacks and sometimes strange streams of consciousness to tell us his story. After the flu struck, encephalitis felled Hig. “Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105,” Hig explains, “I know it cooked my brains.” There is no pattern to Hig’s thoughts. They are often jumbled and mish-mashed, often without segue from one thought to the next. He begins many of his sentences with “and” or “so” and most of his thoughts are fragments. What Hig has lived through and what he has lost speak to us from the page. Heller uses a very powerful device, and Hig just would not be Hig without it.
After living through The End, we would try to make a home in a place of familiarity and safety. That is exactly what Hig does. He makes his home at a small, abandoned airport, where he sleeps under the stars with his faithful old dog, Jasper. He shares the airport with Bangley, his neighbor and “good ole boy,” who often saves Hig’s “bacon.” Bangley needs Hig because Hig pilots an eighty-year-old 1956 (do the math and the year is about 2036) Cessna that he nicknames “the Beast.” Hig and Jasper patrol the airport’s perimeter, which means Hig can see who or what is coming before the who or what gets there. Most of the time.
In the novel’s most violent episode, nine people stalk Hig as he returns from a hunt. Bangley warns him from his spot on a tower and coaches Hig on what to do. Remember this is a kill-or-be-killed world. A firefight ensues. One of the stalkers is a young boy, who Hig kills. Killing may come easy for Bangley, but it is hard for Hig. He is losing hope, especially as he sees the blood disease slowly kill the Mennonite families who live close to the airport and who he furnishes some supplies.
Hig knows he has to leave the airport and Bangley to restore his faith. A few years ago, he heard a voice over the radio while flying. It was a woman’s voice who referenced the Grand Junction airport. Hig is determined to go there and to find out what is out there, if anything. Heller shows that sometimes one must take a leap of faith. Sometimes one has to venture out into the unknown.
Because Hig flies a plane, readers are given a birds’ eye view of what is below. Climate change has made our world almost unrecognizable and alien. Few fish exist. Droughts are common. Animals such as bears, cows, and elk are rare. Birds are almost extinct. “The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The tinmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove. Sad but. Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.”
No wonder Hig thinks of dinosaurs: “I thought of a painting I had seen at the natural history museum in Denver. A bunch of mixed dinosaurs, I remember triceratops, fleeing across a sparse plain pursued by fire, and volcanoes erupting in the background. I wonder if they could run as fast as a mama grizzly or a deer.”
Holding on to memories can go far in keeping a person alive. Hig is testament to this belief. Yet, he must let go of the past in order to embrace his future. In a world devastated by violence, flu, and climate change, sometimes a person has to take certain liberties, especially if he no longer remembers the names of constellations. Sometimes, like Hig, we must make it up as we go along. In a time when there are no rules, Hig has to decide what his rules are; only then can he restore his lost hope. The Dog Stars reminds us that even when mankind has been wiped out, humanity never truly dies.
Heller contrasts violent brutality, charred cities, and empty houses with pastoral scenes of nature. There is such beauty in this story, even when everything is dead or dying. Heller seems to relay an underlying message for readers: Take care of the Earth before his fictional story becomes an actual reality. Cold milk, fresh apples, a touch, a faithful dog, naming the stars, going fishing, a bird call–the fragile stuff of everyday life.