on July 8, 2012
This is the only thing I want to say about the story of this book. It is post-apocalyptic. If that appeals to you, don't hesitate. Beyond that, no need to even read the jacket copy; just let the book surprise you.
There were three ways this book could have gone awry for me.
1. First and most obviously - it is post apocalyptic fiction and I've read a TON of it. At this point, if you are going to tackle this topic, it had better be special. This was.
2. The manner in which the story was told. It was definitely a non-traditional narrative which could have backfired, but it didn't. Instead, it gave the book intimacy.
3. Writing style. This really could have been a issue for me, it's gotten to be a pet peeve of mine. Authors deliberately leaving out words as a style choice. Difficulty getting the hang. Missing words. Read it anyway. Could have ruined it. Writing like that drives me BATTY. But, it worked here for a couple reasons. The author didn't write exclusively like that, so you might have "Walked on the trail. I ran into Jeff on the way." The economy of the language really gave a feel for the economy of the time, and it was the language that most logically suited the structure of the novel. I have to hand it to Heller, I think he achieved a good balance.
The writing is so good! Evocative. I know that I will see glimpses of this book in my mind's eye for days to come.
The characters were well constructed and really interesting. The relationship dynamics most of all.
There was emotion and the sense of loneliness and futility was conveyed without throwing it in your face.
It was tender and harsh, funny and sad, at times edge of your seat suspenseful. I found it as powerful as The Road; but without the bleakness.
I loved it.
This novel was so lovely and poetic, a post apocalyptic story reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but a very different story at the same time. Hig, the narrator, is a man who has survived a flu pandemic, that has changed life in the United States as we know it completely, wiping out most of the population. Those who have survived seem to be subject to some kind of contagious auto-immune disorder of the blood as well, that has continued to decimate the population, and a certain amount of climate change has become noticeable as well.
Hig is a very sad man, having lost his wife, but he appreciates the quietness of this new world. He is a gardener and a hunter, and has a strong relationship with the natural world around him, as well as his dog, Jasper, his little airplane (The Beast) and Bangley, his neighbor in their isolated outpost. Bangley loves guns, and does a great job of protecting them from the occasional marauders looking for, well, anything they can get their hands on (food, weapons, etc.), and willing to kill (and die) to get it.
Hig is tortured by a call over an airport he heard a few years back, while out in his plane one day. Should he risk it all to try and find other survivors, when just seeing another human being now almost requires 'a shoot first and ask questions later' attitude? Hig does not embrace that attitude, although Bangley, an older man, insists it is the only way to survive. Hig needs more from this life. He sets out to find more after a revelatory week alone in the forest.
This was a heartrendingly beautiful story. The writing is wonderful, Heller's descriptions of nature and of the human condition are gorgeous and moving. Hig's existential ramblings and thoughts while by himself also reminded me of Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince and Night Flight. This book is the definition of breathtaking. My only complaint is that there are not another 300 pages...too short. I hope Heller writes more fiction. I adored this book.
Highly recommend for fans of books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.
on July 9, 2012
If you liked Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, you're going to like Peter Heller's THE DOG STARS. If you did not like THE ROAD, you're STILL going to like THE DOG STARS.
Yes, Heller's book is reminiscent of McCarthy's, but you don't have to be a dystopia devotee to appreciate it. Why? Heller is a writer's writer with a talent for deft descriptions, for one, and his dystopian yin hasn't forgotten its utopian yang. Meaning: Hope hasn't escaped the box for good, in the case of this rewarding book.
There's something here for everyone. At times, it is one creepy and violent thriller. But at other times, like when protagonist Hig takes to the mountain streams with his faithful dog, Jasper, it reads like Hemingway. It's almost as if a public service announcer says, "We interrupt this dystopian nightmare to treat you to a Big Two-Hearted River moment." And then: "Now back to our regularly-scheduled apocalyptic mess." Then there is the turn the novel takes in its second half -- the addition of a romantic element, like an echo from Hig's burnt past. All this, yet Heller keeps it together and makes it fit.
To start, we have Hig and his ruthless partner-in-survival, the appropriately-named Bruce Bangley. With his old Cessna, Hig is able to tour the perimeter of the extensive grounds he, Bangley, and Jasper protect from survivors of (what else?) a killer flu pandemic. And what a pair. Where Bangley seems to kill with joy, Hig appears to kill under duress and despite his aversion to it. Both killers, though. By necessity. Only one has a poet's conscience.
Stylistically, the book has its quirks, too. You won't find any quotation marks, for one. Victims of the pandemic, I guess. And fragments (sentences, I'm talking) are as common as the frayed leftovers of civilization featured in the book. Still, the fragmented delivery fits Hig's personality nicely and gives Heller a chance to show his talents in creating voice.
The greatest treat of all, though, is the writing. Some of Heller's descriptions give you pause, they're so poetic. More than once, I reread a passage and said, "Nice. Very nice." Here's an excerpt that might give you a flavor:
"We were on the edge of a small basin above treeline and in the bottom were patches of old snow and a small lake recently cleared of ice... A lake like a gem set in a bezel of tufted tundra and rough scree, the water green with the luminous unapologetic green of a semiprecious stone but textured with the wind. Then it wasn't. The surface stilled and glassed off, polishing itself in an instant, the water reflecting the dark clouds that massed and poured against the ridges like something molten and it was suddenly very cold and the snowflakes began to touch the surface. Ringless, silent, vanishing. I let go the sled's bridle. I was fifty yards from the water. The snow heavier. A white scrim that darkened the air, that hastened the dusk the way a fire deepens the night. I stood transfixed. Too cold for bare hands but my hands were bare. The flakes struck in my eyelashes. They fell on my sleeves. Huge. Flowers and stars. They fell onto each other, held their shapes, became small piles of perfect asterisks and blooms tumbled together in their discrete geometries like children's blocks."
I don't know about you, but with writing like that, I don't even CARE if all Hades is breaking loose around the characters. At least they stop and smell the snowflakes now and again....
Let me start by saying that I would have given this a 4.5 if I could have. Why the drop in 1/2 a star? Because of the odd way that dialogue is presented in the book. I know the lack of quotation marks probably has some kind of deeper meaning, but I couldn't figure it out and just found that it distracted from the story. It just seemed like a grammatical affectation.
That aside, this was a very engrossing and well-written story. The author gripped me by the throat with his writing more than once. He was able to create poignant situations without devolving into the maudlin. Several times I became choked up to the point of tears. I think anyone who can evoke such emotion through writing has to be considered top-notch.
Is the story unique? Well, it isn't in the sense that post-apocalyptic novels have covered this ground before. But I thought the protagonist (Hig) and his mental processes were much differently portrayed than other novels of the same genre. At times it felt a bit like "Earth Abides," (which also has a protagonist with an odd three-lettered name, Ish) but that is probably due to the thoughtful way in which both characters observe their environment and the changes in the earth, seasons, animals, et cetera.
Anyhow, this isn't a zombie-fighting post-apocalyptic book, although there are several skirmishes throughout the book. I personally find Heller's bad guys much worse than the simple terror that zombies evoke. It is depressing to realize that his depiction of roving groups of violent thugs is probably exactly the way things would happen.
I really liked the ending of the book and thought it offered a bit of closure without presenting too perfect of a package. It also leaves the reader with a little mystery about what will happen in the future.
I read this book obsessively until I was done. That in itself is a big recommendation.
on June 28, 2012
Wow - I absolutely loved "The Dog Stars". I usually cannot stand books with stream of consciousness writing as if you are in the character's head listening to strands of thought but I couldn't see this one being written any other way. You've got a pilot, a half-crazy (or maybe more) gun happy neighbor, and a dog looking out for one another after a killer flu/plague kills off 99% of the population. One day, when out for a reconnaissance flight, the pilot gets a return radio message. This sets off a chain of events which I didn't anticipate. Others have compared this to a happier version of "The Road". I see a few similarities but unlike McCarthy's book, this one will stay with me for a long time. There's much to think about and it's worth a re-read.
After reading and reviewing too many books that had me wondering how on earth they ever got published comes this gorgeously lyrical piece of writing. The Dog Stars is quite simply one of the finest books I have ever read. It is heartfelt, geophysically sensual, and deeply emotional. Hig is an extraordinary rendering of a very human man, someone with an immense and frayed heart that, somehow, remains intact and functioning. A dog with personality. Prose that mirrors thought. People capable of love in its purest form, without any agenda. This is narrative skill at its best, with poetic riffs of language that stun the senses. I truly hope this book receives the attention it so deserves. It is a simple symphony to the human spirit.
Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is the newest entry into the post-apocalyptic genre (at least, it was when I began this review, by now it's probably been succeed by a dozen others), but despite joining an ever-growing list of such novels, The Dog Stars does a nice job of standing out amongst the crowd.
The novel follows Hig, a small plane pilot who took up refuge at the local airport after a devastating plague tore through the world, wiping out much of the population. Hig lives at the airport with his dog Jasper and an armed-to-the-teeth survivalist named Bangley in a somewhat uneasy convergence of interests (Hig is never sure Bangley won't just kill him if he sees him as unnecessary, Bangley is never quite sure that Hig won't get them both killed due to his sentimentality). But together they've barricaded their small refuge and for nearly a decade have held off bands of wandering thugs a la Mad Max or The Road.
Hig, though, is feeling a need for something more, though he can't quite define it. After some set-up narrative, and a few scenes involving protecting the perimeter, some flashbacks, he heads off into the woods with Jasper, ostensibly to hunt but really to try and reclaim some sense of himself and here you get a sense of his past life as a small-time poet as well as his current soulfulness:
We move in and out of cottonwoods which make a deeper darkness. Thickets of willows. Up the grassy slopes going pale . . . then a ponderosa forest, smelled before seen, the scent carried downstream: redolent of vanilla, like a sweetshop. These still living . . . A time when we entered shops that smelled like this. Staffed with high school kids in aprons struggling to scoop the hard ice cream . . . Rum raisin my favorite. Melissa's pistachio.
Things, as one might imagine in this genre, soon take a turn for the worse and through the episodic plot that follows, Heller does a nice job of balancing the typical post-apocalyptic action scenes (fighting off barbarians, risky searches for other survivors) with much more quiet, introspective scenes, such as the above-quoted trip into the forest.
Eventually Hig decides, somewhat rashly, to take off and try and find the source of a radio call he heard years ago. He doesn't quite find what he was originally looking for, but what he does find may just reaffirm his search anyway, and his belief that the world doesn't have to be all nightmare all the time. Rather than finding his past self, what he may just find is a rejuvenated future self.
The characterization is sharp throughout, beginning with Hig and continuing on with Bangley, who is nowhere near the simple caricature he could have been and might seem to be at first blush. The relationship between the two, nearly wholly unstated by either, is a wonderful creation. Later relationships aren't quite so successful, nor is the attempt at romance I'd say (especially the sex scenes), but by that point I was wholly in and those few flaws didn't bother me much at all.
While the poetic language and the frequent use of fragments may be off-putting to some readers, it's worth getting past the possible early struggle. At first I really disliked the style, thinking I'd be tossing the book down forcefully in about ten or fifteen pages, but the voice started to slowly win me over and after 30 or so pages, the style and voice went from a severe detriment to a clear plus.
Rather than a bleak, grim novel of the end of the world, filled with loud clashes with roving barbarians, Heller offers up a much more quietly redemptive sort of post-apocalypse. It's a different kind of end-of-the-world story, but it carves out its own successful niche.
on November 28, 2013
Sadly, I can't go along with all the 5-star ratings for this novel. I researched the book before I made my purchase and I really wanted to like it. I love a good, thoughtful, post-apocalyptic tale, and all the comparisons to McCarthy's "The Road," convinced me I was in for a terrific reading experience with "The Dog Stars". Alas, I just didn't connect with the characters, and especially, the author's writing style.
It appears Mr. Heller was trying to channel his inner Cormac McCarthy by attempting a narrative in "The Dog Stars" that eschews common compositional mechanics. Like McCarthy in many of his most famous books, Heller avoids punctuation, quotation marks, and other normal writing conventions in an effort to attach tension and desperation to his story.
I get the idea behind it; if done well, it's a powerful literary technique. In "The Dog Stars," however, it's not done well and it doesn't work for me -- probably because there's no consistency to the author's approach. For parts of the book, the protagonist speaks and thinks in sentence fragments and often sounds like a Neanderthal. Then, in the middle of the occasionally lucid bit of dialog, he drops lines of poetry and uses words like "tranguloid," arteriosclerosis," and "vouchsafed". The two styles don't reconcile with the nature of this character -- again, in my opinion.
McCarthy has mastered this technique, and in books like "Blood Meridian," "No Country for Old Men" and "The Road," the choppy writing method does in fact fortify his stories. Don't get me wrong, it takes some work to learn and appreciate McCarthy's unorthodox style too, but there's always a payoff. It's worth the effort.
"The Dog Stars" suffers because Mr. Heller doesn't allow his story to penetrate his writing style. The narrative is constantly interrupted; it's almost as if the story (substance) was intentionally made secondary to the technique (style). It's like an artist asking patrons to focus on the technique of his brush strokes instead of the whole of a painting. That's really too bad because I think that somewhere in the convoluted caverns of this novel exists what could have been a memorable story, had Mr. Heller taken a more conventional approach.
If. If you can. If you can look past all the sentence fragments. And the Cormac McCarthy-ish lack of quotation marks indicating dialogue.
If you can do all that, you will find "The Dog Stars" an engaging and remarkable novel, one of the best in the ever-crowded post-apocalyptic fiction genre. I will confess that I found the first page or two rather off-putting (I am a compulsive copy-editor who has spent way too many years correcting the sentence fragments of college students), but I quickly fell under the spell of the author's prose and the story he was telling.
The plot is simple: Our protagonist, Hig, is one of the few survivors of a pandemic that wiped out the U.S., perhaps the world. He ekes out a bare existence in an uneasy coalition with a fellow survivor, Bangley, sharing guard duties and killing anybody who approaches their perimeter-no questions asked. Most of the story concerns what happens when Hig, weary of the meaninglessness of this existence, decides to leave his safety zone and search for the source of a radio transmission he heard years earlier. But that is only the subtext of the more important theme of the book, which is to explore the eternal question of human nature when civilization disappears: Is it possible to be a good human being when survival is, as Bangley stresses, a matter of "shoot first, ask later. Guilty, then dead... Never, ever negotiate. You are negotiating your own death"?
What makes the writing of this novel special is the characterization and the way Heller is able to paint a portrait of despair and loss in a few spare words: "The difference maybe between the living and the dead: the living often want to be numb the dead never do, if they never want anything." And this one: "Is it possible to love so desperately that life is unbearable? I don't mean unrequited, I mean being IN the love. In the midst of it and desperate. Because knowing it will end, because everything does."
It would not surprise me in the least if this book were already under development as a movie, because even after you strip away the prose, the story itself is gripping. And if it is made into a movie, Bangley (I'd cast Billy Bob Thornton, maybe) would steal every scene. A hard-core survivalist who seems almost gleeful that his dire prophecies have come to pass, he manages to be simultaneously terrifying and oddly endearing. Should a TEOWAWKI event happen here, while I would like to think that the Higs of the world--with their inner faith in the basic decency of people--would prevail, I think I'd rather have a Bangley by my side.
on August 13, 2012
With his ultra-lean prose style reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, Mr. Heller crafts one hell of a solid post-apocalyptic adventure tale. In fact there is hardly a wasted word here which is pretty remarkable considering all of the traps an author can fall into when mining this genre. But the story unfolds in a very naturalistic, and always compelling way that is both subtly nuanced and at times, downright disturbing.
The McCarthy reference is not one I throw around lightly since I consider him to be one of the best contemporary writers working today. It's just that the prose style used by Mr. Heller has the same careful economy and punctuation-light approach so often utilized by McCarthy. The catch in using this style effectively though is that you have to make absolutely every word, every sentence count! -Which Heller most certainly does In "The Dog Stars".
All I know is that this book is probably the most entertaining and accomplished work of fiction I've read all year.