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 at 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."
Hig introduces himself as a flying dreamer. He compares the state of the world to that described in the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament: "deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. (Lamentations 1:1-2)
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 defend you.
Hig dreams of the loss of his wife, Melissa, but the one thing that keeps him persevering is the companionship of his dog. One morning, however, Jasper does not wake up. His death during the night affects Hig more than anything since the passing of his wife -- he cannot function for three days: "It is the third day. At daybreak I shift, feel him in the quilt and have forgotten and then a moment where I remember and still expect him to stir. . . And then I sob. Sob and sob. And rouse myself and carry him in the quilt curled, carry him just under the trees and begin to dig." (p 112)
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. He flies alone and notes how "normal the absences" of life and sound are. He eventually lands at Grand Junction 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. He notes that it is "funny how you can live a whole life waiting and not know it." (p 215)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 dystopic scenery yields to Hig's generally positive attitude once he has recovered, as much as anyone can, from his losses. I enjoyed the novel's unique mix of realistic life 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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