The Dog Stars
by Peter Heller
“Funny how you can live your whole life waiting and not know it... Waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe the most real thing the end. To realize when it's too late. I know now that I loved him more than anything on earth or off of it.” ― Peter Heller, The Dog Stars
Flying in an old Cessna with his dog provides consolation for Hig the narrator of this engaging story of a not too distant future time on an Earth that is slowly dying. Hig has already lost his wife, his friends, and is marooned on a small abandoned airport in Colorado with his dog Jasper and his partner and friend (perhaps) Bangley. He relates, "I took up flying with the sense of coming to something I had been meant to do all my life."
Somewhat reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the catastrophe that has turned the world into its cataclysmic state remains unnamed, but it involves “The Blood,” a highly virulent and contagious disease that has drastically reduced the population and has turned most of the remaining survivors into grim hangers-on, fiercely protective of their limited territory. Hig periodically takes his 1956 Cessna out to survey the harsh and formidable landscape. While on rare occasions he spots a few Mennonites, fear of “The Blood” generally keeps people at more than arm’s length. Hig has established a defensive perimeter by a large berm, competently guarded by Bangley, a terrifying friend but exactly the kind of guy you want on your side, since he can spot intruders from hundreds of yards away, and he has plenty of firepower to do it.
During one of his flights Hig hears a voice on the radio coming from Grand Junction. Haunted by thoughts of what the voice may mean he takes off one day in search of fellow survivors and comes across Pops and Cima, a father and daughter who are barely eking out a living off the land by gardening and tending a few emaciated sheep. Like Bangley, Pops is laconic and doesn't yield much, but Hig understandably finds himself attracted to Cima, the only woman for hundreds of miles and a replacement for the ache Hig feels in having lost his pregnant wife, Melissa, years before. Perhaps there is a possibility of a new life. Perhaps not: “Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.”
Peter Heller's narrator intersperses Beckett-like dialogue with brief yet elegant descriptions of the land, his dreams, and his melancholy longing for a warming world that is dying around him. The novel presents a unique mix of the reality of living in a bleak apocalyptic world while experiencing the leavening effect of nostalgia for love lost and a spirit that will not be denied.
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