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.