Love Among the Ruins

John Hay

The action in The Dog Stars, Peter Heller’s first novel, is confined to a small area of postapocalyptic Colorado, nine years after a superflu outbreak has killed off the vast majority—“ninety nine point whatever”—of the human population. Hig, the succinctly named forty-one-year-old protagonist, spends his days in the sky, patrolling the perimeter of his fortified encampment in a rusty but serviceable Cessna. His only companions are Jasper, his old dog, and Bangley, a laconic survivalist bent on enhancing their store of weapons and ammunition. While Hig and Bangley occasionally have to defend their territory from deadly intruders, life for the former primarily consists of hunting, fishing, farming, and sleeping under the stars. The Dog Stars thus balances the impression of a bleak, violent hell-on-earth with the vision of a comfortingly Thoreauvian life in the woods, an odd combination that suggests “some apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell.”

Yet just as Thoreau continued to grieve over his older brother’s premature death while living at Walden, Hig struggles with disturbing memories of his wife’s final days in her battle with the superflu. When his dog Jasper dies early in the novel, the shock of this additional loss leads Hig on a desperate journey west, fueled by the hope of chasing down a faint radio signal. En route, he stops in a valley where he finds a younger woman, Cima, living with her former Navy SEAL father. Cima also suffers with the terrible trauma of the post-plague world, and she and Hig, like “two trees nearly unrooted and leaning against each other,” gradually fall in love.

Hig and Cima are pleasant characters, and the “boy-and-his-dog” theme is touching, but a heartsick man’s miraculous discovery of a beautiful single woman (Cima is described as tall, thin, and “well proportioned”) in a nearly empty world severely challenges the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In addition to compromising the novel’s realist effect, Cima’s appearance initiates a fairly conventional, and therefore much less interesting, story of love and redemption in a harsh environment.

Despite occasional moments of disturbing violence (as when Hig murders a man wearing a necklace made of female genitalia), the most striking aspects of the novel are formal.

Yet the most impressive aspect of the book is Heller’s development of his most fascinating figure: Bangley, who initially appears as a “holocaust hardened mendicant,” the type of isolate, stoic killer that D. H. Lawrence found typical in American literature. Bangley’s character evolves from a caricature of a self-reliant anarchist into a complex yet reserved older man grappling with the same problems of loss and dependency that the others share. Hig can remain soft at heart because Bangley protects him, a task performed not only out of a sense of brotherhood and self-sacrifice, but also because Bangley recognizes that Hig’s peaceful and loving spirit must be preserved in an often gruesome world in which survivors are “mostly Not Nice.”

Despite occasional moments of disturbing violence (as when Hig murders a man wearing a necklace made of female genitalia), the most striking aspects of the novel are formal. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a work it resembles in its grimmer moments, The Dog Stars tends to eschew punctuation, and dialogue is usually relegated to brief staccato remarks. Short paragraphs are separated with full line breaks, a format that suggests discontinuity and isolation, though perhaps also poetic verse. Indeed, Hig claims to have been a published poet before the arrival of the plague, and his views from the cockpit occasionally soar into elevated prose, as when he sees the “brown circles of fields like the footprint of a crutch fading into the prairie.” For the most part, however, his narration offers terse description rather than imaginative figuration—a choice that is appropriate for a setting in which there is “no hyperbole anymore just stark extinction mounting up.” Nevertheless, Hig’s smoldering poetic disposition sparks a bright light in a dark world, and The Dog Stars brings its characters from quiet desperation into peaceful companionship.