There are books that I want to read, but have no intention of ever actually reading. These books have some appeal, but in my short life I only get to read so many books, so they shall forever remain on the bottom of the to-read pile, never to be read. Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was one of these books. It had too many strikes against it to be really good: an established writer of non-fiction trying his hand at fiction at the age of 53; a post-apocalyptic story; a protagonist who loves flying, fishing, and his dog; a gun-toting misanthrope. If the publishing industry stopped printing books and I lived an extraordinarily long life I figured I’d get around to it eventually… maybe.
So with the publishing industry still going and my old age beginning to show why did I read The Dog Stars now? Bingo. Literally, Bingo. I had to read a book with a blue cover for a reading bingo game. I’d planned originally to fulfill this requirement with Infinite Jest but traipsing through those 1100 pages would certainly slow down my becoming reading-bingo champion of the world (and I want all the glory, dammit!) The Dog Stars was nearby, convenient, and much shorter, so I decided to give it a try. (Don’t worry, Joe—if I don’t start Infinite Jest by mid-year, I give you permission to defriend me and take whatever action necessary to drag my name through the mud.)
If Hemingway had written a post-apocalyptic novel, I think it would’ve looked very similar to The Dog Stars. Our protagonist, Hig, is built from the same mold as Nick Adams. He likes the outdoors, fishing, and life. That last one is important because, keep in mind, this is a very, very dark world. It bears great similarity to the world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In fact, aside from one world being warm and the other being very cold, I can think of no other difference. So yes, this is a savage book, but it also has heart. Hig may be the last man in the world capable of compassion, but at least he exists.
I liked The Dog Stars much more than I had anticipated. Especially during the first half of the novel, I was drawn in. The world Heller has crafted is probably the most realistic post-apocalyptic world I’ve seen in literature. Obviously I cannot say what the world will be like after “the apocalypse”—maybe there really will be zombies, white horses, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together—but this story hummed with a realism I felt.
The first half of the novel is five stars, all the way. Unfortunately, the second half didn’t quite work the same for me. The world still felt real, but there was something mildly artificial about the story. Hig spent much too much time in location b, discovering himself and… well, I wasn’t able to get back on track from that point on. Nevertheless, I largely enjoyed the novel. I’ve never walked away from such a dark world and said, “I wish I could spend more time there.” Moral of the review: never say never.