But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap, I foresee attacks. I am young enough, I am old enough. I used to love to fish for trout more than almost anything.
My name is Hig, one name. Big Hig if you need another.
If I ever woke up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone every one. Brookies, rainbows, browns, cutthroats, cutbows, every one.
The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah. The titmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove. Sad but. Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.
Melissa, my wife, was an old hippy. Not that old. She looked good. In this story she might have been Eve, but I’m not Adam. I am more like Cain. They didn’t have a brother like me.
Did you ever read the Bible? I mean sit down and read it like it was a book? Check out Lamentations. That’s where we’re at, pretty much. Pretty much lamenting. Pretty much pouring our hearts out like water.
They said at the end it would get colder after it gets warmer. Way colder. Still waiting. She’s a surprise this old earth, one big surprise after another since before she separated from the moon who circles and circles like the mate of a shot goose.
No more geese. A few. Last October I heard the old bleating after dusk and saw them, five against the cold bloodwashed blue over the ridge. Five all fall, I think, next April none.
I hand pump the 100 low lead aviation gas out of the old airport tank when the sun is not shining, and I have the truck too that was making the fuel delivery. More fuel than the Beast can burn in my lifetime if I keep my sorties local, which I plan to, I have to. She’s a small plane, a 1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut. Cream and blue. I’m figuring I’m dead before the Beast gives up the final ghost. I will buy the farm. Eighty acres of bottomland hay and corn in a country where there is still a cold stream coming out of the purple mountains full of brookies and cuts.
Before that I will make my roundtrips. Out and back.
I have a neighbor. One. Just us at a small country airport a few miles from the mountains. A training field where they built a bunch of houses for people who couldn’t sleep without their little planes, the way golfers live on a golf course. Bangley is the name on the registration of his old truck, which doesn’t run anymore. Bruce Bangley. I fished it out of the glove box looking for a tire pressure gauge I could take with me in the Beast. A Wheat Ridge address. I don’t call him that, though, what’s the point, there’s only two of us. Only us for at least a radius of eight miles, which is the distance of open prairie to the first juniper woods on the skirt of the mountain. I just say, Hey. Above the juniper is oak brush then black timber. Well, brown. Beetle killed and droughted. A lot of it standing dead now, just swaying like a thousand skeletons, sighing like a thousand ghosts, but not all. There are patches of green woods, and I am their biggest fan. I root for them out here on the plain. Go Go Go Grow Grow Grow! That’s our fight song. I yell it out the window as I fly low over. The green patches are spreading year by year. Life is tenacious if you give it one little bit of encouragement. I could swear they hear me. They wave back, wave their feathery arms back and forth down low by their sides, they remind me of women in kimonos. Tiny steps or no steps, wave wave hands at your sides.
I go up there on foot when I can. To the greener woods. Funny to say that: not like I have to clear my calendar. I go up to breathe. The different air. It’s dangerous, it’s an adrenalin rush I could do without. I have seen elk sign. Not so old. If there are still elk. Bangley says no way. Way, but. Never seen one. Seen plenty deer. I bring the .308 and I shoot a doe and I drag her back in the hull of a kayak which I sawed the deck off so it’s a sled. My green sled. The deer just stayed on with the rabbits and the rats. The cheat grass stayed on, I guess that’s enough.
Before I go up there I fly it twice. One day, one night with the goggles. The goggles are pretty good at seeing down through trees if the trees aren’t too heavy. People make pulsing green shadows, even asleep. Better than not checking. Then I make a loop south and east, come back in from the north. Thirty miles out, at least a day for a traveler. That’s all open, all plains, sage and grass and rabbit brush and the old farms. The brown circles of fields like the footprint of a crutch fading into the prairie. Hedgerows and windbreaks, half the trees broken, blown over, a few still green by a seep or along a creek. Then I tell Bangley.
I cover the eight miles dragging the empty sled in two hours, then I am in cover. I can still move. It’s a long way back with a deer, though. Over open country. Bangley covers me from halfway out. We still have the handsets and they still recharge with the panels. Japanese built, good thing. Bangley has a .408 CheyTac sniper rifle set up on a platform he built. A rangefinder. My luck. A gun nut. A really mean gun nut. He says he can pot a man from a mile off. He has done. I’ve seen it more than once. Last summer he shot a girl who was chasing me across the open plain. A young girl, a scarecrow. I heard the shot, stopped, left the sled, went back. She was thrown back over a rock, a hole where her waist should have been, just about torn in half. Her chest was heaving, panting, her head twisted to the side, one black eye shiny and looking up at me, not fear, just like a question, burning, like of all things witnessed this one couldn’t be believed. Like that. Like fucking why?
That’s what I asked Bangley, fucking why.
She would have caught you.
So what? I had a gun, she had a little knife. To like protect her from me. She maybe wanted food.
Maybe. Maybe she’d slit your throat in the middle of the night.
I stared at him, his mind going that far, to the middle of the night, me and her. Jesus. My only neighbor. What can I say to Bangley? He has saved my bacon more times. Saving my bacon is his job. I have the plane, I am the eyes, he has the guns, he is the muscle. He knows I know he knows: he can’t fly, I don’t have the stomach for killing. Any other way probably just be one of us. Or none.
I also have Jasper, son of Daisy, which is the best last line of alarm.
So when we get sick of rabbits and sunfish from the pond, I get a deer. Mostly I just want to go up there. It feels like church, hallow and cool. The dead forest swaying and whispering, the green forest full of sighs. The musk smell of deer beds. The creeks where I always pray to see a trout. One fingerling. One big old survivor, his green shadow idling against the green shadows of the stones.
Eight miles of open ground to the mountain front, the first trees. That is our perimeter. Our safety zone. That is my job.
He can concentrate his firepower to the west that way. That’s how Bangley talks. Because it’s thirty miles out, high plains all other directions, more than a day’s walk, but just a couple of hours west to the first trees. The families are south ten miles but they don’t bother us. That’s what I call them. They are something like thirty Mennonites with a blood disease that hit after the flu. Like a plague but slow burning. Something like AIDS I think, maybe more contagious. The kids were born with it and it makes them all sick and weak and every year some die.
We have the perimeter. But if someone hid. In the old farmsteads. In the sage. The willows along a creek. Arroyos, too, with undercut banks. He asked me that once: how do I know. How do I know someone is not inside our perimeter, in all that empty country, hiding, waiting to attack us? But thing is I can see a lot. Not like the back of the hand, too simple, but like a book I have read and reread too many times to count, maybe like the Bible for some folks of old. I would know. A sentence out of place. A gap. Two periods where there should be one. I know.
I know, I think: if I am going to die—no If—it will be on one of these trips to the mountains. Crossing open ground with the full sled. Shot in the back with an arrow.
Bangley a long time ago gave me bulletproof, one of the vests in his arsenal. He has all kinds of shit. He said it’ll stop any handgun, an arrow, but with a rifle it depends, I better be lucky. I thought about that. We’re supposed to be the only two living souls but the families in at least hundreds of square miles, the only survivors, I better be lucky. So I wear the vest because it’s warm, but if it’s summer I mostly don’t. When I wear it, I feel like I’m waiting for something. Would I stand on a train platform and wait for a train that hasn’t come for months? Maybe. Sometimes this whole thing feels just like that.
What People are Saying About This
“The Dog Stars creates a delicate balance between post-civilization wish fulfillment and the deep human need for connection. . . . Heller writes like a kind of latter-day Hemingway or McCarthy. . . . Our current uncertainties can’t hold a candle to nuclear war or a devastating plague, but in the end, the remedy for our fears remains the same: love and connection.” —Clay Evans, Boulder Daily Camera
“Heller sculpts a unique and compelling story [and] an intricate hero who inspires a risky break from complacency in a quest for happiness that can’t be planned but must be forged. . . . [Heller’s] best work yet, combining his keen eye for details and his energetic writing with a gift for introspective storytelling.” —Jason Blevins, The Denver Post
“[The Dog Stars] gripped me—it’s the real deal. Heller’s voice is extraordinary and his narrator’s toughness seems to hide a beautiful and aching restlessness. One of those books that makes you happy for literature.” —Junot Díaz, Wall Street Journal
“A novel about no less than isolation, humanity, empathy, and need.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Lyrical . . . This is a beautiful, haunting and hopeful book written with a poetic sparseness that makes your breath catch and your heart ache.” —Carole O’Brien, Aspen Daily News Online
“Heller has created a heartbreakingly moving love story with The Dog Stars, one of this year’s greatest literary surprises. . . . A poetic and stellar story of what can happen to men and women when their world begins to die. It’s an ode to what we’ve lost so far, and how we risk losing everything. Grade: A+” —John J. Kelly, Cincinnati City Beat
“Vivacious . . . Heller’s writing is powerful and elegant even when in the vernacular, and polished to a high degree. The narrator’s voice comes through in all his sadness. The story as far as it goes is relatively believable, swiftly paced and engrossing.” —Michel Basilières, The Star
“Beautifully narrated . . . a book that will surprise you. . . . Hig is a charmer, a man of his word with a wicked sense of humor and an acute sense of survival. His eyes are open to the world as only a poet’s can be, observing and absorbing any beauty left in the aftermath of the world’s tragedy. . . . The author shocks readers with unexpected bursts of action-packed scenes that keep the book moving at a suspenseful pace, without compromising the literary style. Heller has written a rare novel that combines readability with high-style prose, while making each compliment the other. The result is a book that rests easily on shelves with Dean Koontz, Jack London or Hemingway. The prose in this novel is anything but conventional. It often is painfully beautiful as the story lapses into arching poetic verse when High is pushed to the very depths of despair, yet still he retains hope. The Dog Stars illustrates the strength of bonds that can be formed between men, the fierce companionship between man and dog, and the inner-struggle of a survivor's guilt with gut-wrenching clarity. Heller’s sensitivity to nature and descriptive detail brings about an appreciation that will make readers pause, if only for a moment, to reflect on the majesty of their own natural surroundings. It’s a tale of humanity after Doomsday, from an author who’s not afraid to step out of his comfort zone.” —Mindy Sansoucie, The Missourian
“What [Hig] encounters along the way brings to the fore primal instincts and essential desires. The action is swift, pinpointing old struggles with little ado: Companionship is what we long for, memory is what confounds us, sex is what agitates the caldron of all we are. The narrative has the urgency and rhythm of Morse code. An amalgam of long and short utterances, it goes far in conveying the near-isolation of an alert mind. . . . In the end, the stronghold grows. Whether that has larger implications for the future of humanity is irrelevant. Scarcity leads to the discovery of new pleasures. To a re-evaluation of what matters. To a sense of home. Giving one’s dog a place among the constellations in the company of a lover amounts to all of the above.” —Rudy Mesicek, The Salt Lake Tribune
“Fresh . . . quiet, meditative . . . it’s the people [Hig] meets when he least expects to who change everything, proving a truth we know from our everyday nonfictional lives: Even when it seems like all the humans in the world are only out for themselves, there are always those few who prove you absolutely wrong—in the most surprising of ways.” —Leigh Newman, Oprah.com
"A stupendous debut, Heller's voice is both haunted and irresistible. A post-apocalyptic novel with so much emotional truth it reads like a memoir from the future. About a worn-out pilot, his beloved Cessna, his copilot dog and our endless longing for connection—even in a world undone." —Junot Diaz
“When Hig takes his plane into the wilderness surrounding the airport, The Dog Stars can feel less like a 21st-century apocalypse and more like a 19th-century frontier narrative (albeit one in which many, many species have become extinct). There are echoes of Grizzly Adams or Jeremiah Johnson in scenes where Heller lingers on the details of how the water in a flowing stream changes color as the sun moves across the sky, or making a fire from fallen twigs on a bed of dry moss. Modern technology finds its way back into the story, but we’re so far inside Hig’s head that it feels like one more element in the dreamlike landscape. Though it is punctuated by intensely violent outbursts, once these recede into the background, Heller’s novel can approach moments of quiet, poetic beauty.” —Ron Hogan, Dallas News
“An elegy for a lost world turns suddenly into a paean to new possibilities. In The Dog Stars, Peter Heller serves up an insightful account of physical, mental, and spiritual survival unfolded in dramatic and often lyrical prose . . . in which unexpected hope persistently flickers amid darkness.” —Alan Cheuse, The Boston Globe
“Hig sees animals in the stars, beauty in trees and love in his memories—and so will you. The story is at times brutal but the language is often poetic. This is a deeply felt story about things we all crave: connection, love and survival in an unforgiving world.” —Ronni Mott, Jackson Free Press
“[A] terrific debut novel . . . Recalling the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy and the trout-praising beauty of David James Duncan, The Dog Stars makes a compelling case that the wild world will survive the apocalypse just fine; it’s the humans who will have the heavy lifting.” —Bruce Barcott, Outside Magazine
“Suspenseful, full of action and hope, and a love story. . . . The book is one you’ll not soon forget.” — Kay Dyer, The Oklahoman
“Heller’s writing gives you a heartbreaking jolt, like a sudden wakening from a dream.” —Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times
“What separates Heller's book from other End of Days stories is that it doesn't rely on the thematic fail-safes to tell the story—The Dog Stars is quite simply the story of what it's like to be alone. What it feels like to not know more than one or two other people for a decade. What it's like to love those people while fearing them, all the time knowing that survival sometimes means you have to shoot first.” —Melody Datz, The Stranger
“Heller crafts a richly emotional perspective on how humans choose to respond when confronted with calamity. . . . [T]here’s a singular voice at work here in Hig’s halting first-person narration that turns his mind into a battleground between two choices of handling apocalypse: self-preserving fear, or risky humanity. At times funny, at times thrilling, at times simply heartbreaking and always rich with a love of nature, The Dog Stars finds a peculiar poetry in deciding that there’s really no such thing as the end of the world—just a series of decisions about how we live in whatever world we’ve got.” —Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly
“The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a heavenly book, a stellar achievement by a debut novelist that manages to combine sparkling prose with truly memorable, shining, characters. It contains constellations of grand images and ideas, gleams with vitality, and sparkles with wit. And for a story of this ilk, it is also—a rarity—radiant with hope. Despite the many terrible events threatening to engulf our heroes, The Dog Stars never falls into the black hole of hopelessness common in many post-apocalyptic fictions. . . . Luminous with bright ideas . . . The Dog Stars is the story of Hig’s conversation with his faith, with his humanity, with his former life. By turns moving, articulate and, exciting, it is also one of those stories that remains with the reader long after the book is closed. It contains all of the lyricism of Cormac McCarthy at his best—Hig fights for ‘things that have no use anymore except as a bulwark against oblivion. Against the darkness of total loss.’ And he reaches for the stars. For the constellations of his memory. He looks up and not down.” —A. J. Kirby, New York Journal of Books
“With its soulful hero, macabre villains, tender love story and action scenes staggered at perfectly spaced intervals, [The Dog Stars] unfolds with the vigor of the film it will undoubtedly become. But it also succeeds as a dark, poetic and funny novel in its own right. . . . That [Hig’s] story is not in the end depressing may be the most disturbing part of this novel. In fact, at times, the destruction of civilization seems to have given Hig the chance to live more richly in the present, to feel grace more acutely, to sleep outdoors and gaze up at the stars in his purged, rejuvenated universe. It is frightening to face up to the apocalypse. It’s perhaps even more frightening when we get past that and start seeing its upside.” —Jennifer Reese, NPR
“A stunning, hope-riddled end-of-the-world story . . . bound to become a classic.” —Emily Temple, Flavorwire
“The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic adventure novel with the soul of haiku. . . . Heller is a well-known adventure writer, and his knowledge of and sensitivity to nature and outdoor pursuits come through here with precision and power. . . . A novel that gets under the skin of what it means to survive unbearable loss.” —Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch
“A heart-wrenching and richly written story about loss and survival—and, more important, about learning to love again. . . . The Dog Stars is a love story, but not just in the typical sense. It’s an ode to friendship between two men, a story of the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for.”—Michele Filgate, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“By putting us in the worst of all possible times, literature can allow us to experience the best side of humankind, where instead of giving up, we struggle desperately in the ruins for love, connection and hope. And that brings us to Peter Heller’s ravishing doomsday novel, The Dog Stars. . . . An indelible core of kindness beats like a heart within [Hig]. . . . The supreme pleasure of this book is the lovely writing. Hig talks to himself, and to us, in a kind of syncopated rhythm that’s as intimate as a conversation, with pauses and clipped words. . . . In the midst of all the devastation, Heller shows us the stunning beauty of the natural world. . . . The pages of The Dog Stars are damp with grief for what is lost and can never be recovered. But there are moments of unexpected happiness, of real human interaction, infused with love and hope, like the twinkling of a star we might wish upon, which makes this end-of-the-world novel more like a rapturous beginning. . . . Remarkable.”—Caroline Leavitt, San Francisco Chronicle
“Magical and life-affirming.” —Eric Brown, The Guardian
“Terrific . . . With echoes of Moby Dick, The Dog Stars . . . brings Melville’s broad, contemplative exploration of good and evil to his story; he tells it in the spare, often disjunctive, language of Beckett. Heller’s vision, however, is not as dark as that of his literary antecedents. . . . With startling lyricism, Heller’s accomplished first novel rises above the inherent darkness of a world stripped bare by disease, climate change and violence” —Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness
“Alternates between elegiac reflection, lyrical nature writing, and intense, high-caliber action.” —NPR
“The critically acclaimed book of the summer.” —Philadelphia Magazine
“The Dog Stars is a compelling debut from author Peter Heller, which decisively strikes at the ever-arching desire to know what makes us human. . . . Gruff, tormented and inspirational, Heller has the astonishing ability to make you laugh, cringe and feel ridiculously vulnerable throughout the novel that will have you rereading certain passages with a hard lump in the pit of your stomach. One of the most powerful reads in years.” —Playboy
“After an award-winning career as an adventure writer and NPR contributor, Heller has written a stunning debut novel. In spare, poetic prose, he portrays a soaring spirit of hope that triumphs over heartbreak, trauma, and insurmountable struggles. A timely must-read.” —Library Journal
“Richly evocative yet streamlined journal entries propel the high-stakes plot while simultaneously illuminating Hig’s nuanced states of mind as isolation and constant vigilance exact their toll, along with his sorrow for the dying world . . . Heller’s surprising and irresistible blend of suspense, romance, social insight, and humor creates a cunning form of cognitive dissonance neatly pegged by Hig as an ‘apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell’—a novel, that is, of spiky pleasure and signal resonance.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
“In the tradition of postapocalyptic literary fiction such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, this hypervisceral first novel by adventure writer Heller (Kook) takes place nine years after a superflu has killed off much of mankind. . . . With its evocative descriptions of hunting, fishing, and flying, this novel, perhaps the world’s most poetic survival guide, reads as if Billy Collins had novelized one of George Romero’s zombie flicks. From start to finish, Heller carries the reader aloft on graceful prose, intense action, and deeply felt emotion.” —Publishers Weekly
“Leave it to Peter Heller to imagine a post-apocalyptic world that contains as much loveliness as it does devastation. His likable hero, Hig, flies around what was once Colorado in his 1956 Cessna, chasing all the same things we chase in these pre-annihilation days: love, friendship, the solace of the natural world, the chance to perform some small kindness, and a good dog for a co-pilot. The Dog Stars is a wholly compelling and deeply engaging debut.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted
“Take the sensibility of Hemingway. Or James Dickey. Place it in a world where a flu mutation has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the population. Add in a heartbroken man with a fishing rod, some guns, a small plane. Don't forget the dog. Now imagine this man retains more hope than might be wise in such a battered and brutal time. More trust. More hunger for love—more capacity for it, too. That's what Peter Heller has given us in his beautifully written first novel. The Dog Stars is a gripping tale of one man's fight for survival against impossibly long odds. A man who has lost nearly everything but his soul. And what's so moving about Heller's book is that he shows us how sometimes a big soul is the only thing a man needs: the keystone, the center pillar, the hunk of masonry upon which all else will rise or fall.” —Scott Smith, author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins
“Heller is a masterful storyteller and The Dog Stars is a beautiful tribute to the resilience of nature and the relentless human drive to find meaning and deep connections with life and the living. In this chillingly realistic post-apocalyptic setting, readers will root for Heller's characters and be moved by their toughness as well as their tenderness.” —Julianna Baggott, author of Pure
“The Dog Stars is a giant of a novel that goes about its profound business with what looks alarmingly like ease. For all those who thought Cormac McCarthy's The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world—think again. Peter Heller has dark and glittering news from the future, and delivers it in prose that stops you like a wolf in the snow. Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book.” —Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion Peter Heller’s novel about a pilot and his dog trying to survive in a world filled with loss, The Dog Stars.
The prose style of The Dog Stars is clipped, terse, often fragmented. Why would Heller choose this way of writing this particular story? In what ways is it fitting?
2. At the beginning of Chapter III, the narrator wonders why he’s telling this story. What might be his motivations? Who does he imagine his audience will be?
3. Hig says that Bangley “had been waiting for the End all his life. . . . He didn’t do anything that wasn’t aimed at surviving” [p. 71]. He also clearly enjoys killing people. In what ways is Hig different from Bangley? How did “the End” affect him? How does he feel about killing?
4. How and why does Hig’s relationship with Bangley change over the course of the novel?
5. Jasper’s death is a turning point for Hig. How and why does it affect him so powerfully?
6. When Cima’s father asks Hig why he came to their canyon—why he flew beyond the point of no return—Hig can’t find an answer. What might have prompted Hig to take that risk? What was he looking for?
7. When they decide to take a ewe and a ram with them on the plane, Hig says, “Like the Ark. Here we go” [p. 273]. He says it jokingly, but does the novel offer a sense of hope that life on the planet might continue, postapocalypse? What other biblical references occur in the novel?
8. The Dog Stars is a serious book about a devastating subject, but what are some of its more lighthearted moments? Why is it important that the book have this mixture of tenderness and violence, anxiety and peace?
9. What has caused the end of human civilization in the novel? Why have the scattered survivors become so savage? Does the postapocalyptic world Heller presents seem accurate and likely, given the state of the world today?
10. Why is Hig’s relationship with Cima so important in the novel? What makes it particularly touching, given what each of them has suffered?
11. The novel’s ending is ambiguous. Cima, Hig, Bangley, and Pops have formed a kind of family, the spruce and aspen are coming back, eagles and hawks are flourishing, but the trout and elk are gone, water is disappearing, and mysterious jets are flying overhead. What might happen next, or in the next ten years, for these characters and the world they live in?
12. Why does Heller conclude The Dog Stars with Hig’s favorite poem “When Will I Be Home?” by Li Shang-Yin? Why is this a fitting way to end the story? In what ways is the novel about the longing for home?
13. What does the novel imply about human nature, after the constraints of civilization have been removed? What does it suggest about the possible consequences of the way we are living now?
What similarities does The Dog Stars share with other recent dystopian novels like The Hunger Games and The Road? In what important ways does it differ from them?