The Dog Stars

In the last few years, we’ve witnessed a parade of the undead staggering over depeopled landscapes. Zombies have marched through the television series The Walking Dead, Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, and movies both horror-tinged (The Crazies) and humor-tinged (Zombieland), not to mention the literary mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In his first novel, The Dog Stars, Peter Heller slyly co-opts this current cultural obsession with zombies and post-apocalyptic scenarios to tell an original adventure story set in an uncomfortably near American future.

The Dog Stars begins nine years after most of the U.S. population has been devastated by a mysterious flu. Heller’s protagonist, Hig, who lost his wife and unborn child in the epidemic, spends his days in an aging Cessna, patrolling the area around the abandoned Colorado airport hangar where he lives. Dog is — literally — his copilot. Jasper, a blue heeler mix, is Hig’s constant companion, an extra pair of eyes and ears on alert for those who intrude within “the perimeter.” Their interdependence and mutual affection make for one of the most touching relationships between human and dog in modern fiction.

Aside from Jasper, Hig’s survival hinges on his skills as an outdoorsman (Heller is a contributing editor at Outside magazine and has written books about surfing and extreme kayaking) and his wary partnership with Bangley, an ex-military man with a formidable arsenal and a no-mercy mantra who has taken up residence in a nearby abandoned McMansion. The few humans who survived the virus along with Hig and Bangley tend to be deranged by deprivation and the corrosive effects of the flu on their brains. Hig is the spotter. Bangley is the killer.

Like the best science fiction writers, Heller makes our familiar world alien. His vistas — burned-out cities, buckling pavement, a Coke truck, abandoned on the highway, whose cans are bursting one by one during repeated freezes and thaws — are eerie and beautiful. The Dog Stars’ eroding infrastructure is reminiscent of Alan Weisman’s 2007 nonfiction book The World Without Us, a fascinating thought experiment that describes how swiftly the natural world would reclaim the manmade one if humans were to disappear suddenly from the planet.

The only occasional distraction is Heller’s decision to render Hig’s first-person account in the broken sentences of a soldier-poet. At moments of high emotion the prose devolves: “I don’t. Don’t do anything all day. Don’t start the fire. Don’t cook the fish.” And there’s an unfortunate love scene made even more awkward by Hig’s alternately terse and ornate turns of phrase. Why, oh why, do writers feel compelled to invent flowery new ways to describe an act that is almost always best left to readers’ more limber imaginations?

The Dog Stars is so entertaining – and often so very funny — that it might be easy to overlook the larger questions that Heller cleverly puts into play about the value of human survival at the cost of near-total isolation. Hig’s partner, Bangley, appears to relish his solitary life, and he and Hig are constantly at odds over whether to allow anyone who ventures within their designated perimeter to live. Bangley’s blow-’em-away arguments make a brutal kind of sense. But one man’s utopia is another man’s hell.

Hig concedes that any contact with outsiders brings the risk of infection or outright murder. And he mourns the ultimate act of human destruction — global warming — which has resulted in the disappearance of the fish he once loved from local waters. Living alone, even in this diminished world, he continues to take genuine pleasure in the existential activities of hunting, fishing, flying, and gardening. And yet he makes a risky bid to forge a new connection in a world where connection may no longer be possible. Nothing could be more human.