Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review - The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Someone gave me The Dog Stars to read - not a book I would have chosen. But I'm glad I read it.
The fragmented sentences match the subject - a crippled world both strange and familiar, 9 years after a paired epidemic has wiped out most people, leaving the few survivors armed and hostile - and in unexpected partnerships.

Hig, a pilot and poet, widowed and numb, makes alliance with Bangley, a survivalist gun nut, at a rural airport on the plains of front-range Colorado. Hig in his 1956 Cessna surveys the surrounding area while Bangley makes their territory defensible. Their different skills form a bond that deepens as they save each other from marauders.

Heller doesn't dwell on the how or why of the diseases - flu and an AIDS-like blood disease - that swept the country. He turns more attention to land laid waste by its own malaise: global warming. Trout die off in creeks warmed by reduced snowpack and longer hotter summers; pine beetles run rampant, killing off forests; deer survive but there seem to be no elk. Songbirds have perished, though not birds of prey. But sprinkled in this tale of devastation is the author's deadpan humor:

"Why do I fly my eighty year old Cessna four seater?

Because the seats are side by side. So Jasper [his dog] can be my copilot. The real reason. The whole time I fly I talk to him, and it amuses me no end that the whole time he pretends not to listen."

Bangley digs in but Hig is restless, hiking with Jasper on hunting and fishing trips into the nearby mountains and exploring aloft what lies within his plane's range. He makes his rounds: a semi full of cases of soda, to stock up; a Mennonite compound where everyone is weak from the blood disease but safe from raiders thanks to its contagion; another airfield, to obtain the additive that makes his aviation fuel viable.

The only electrical systems that work are solar-powered, but GPS also continues to function - the satellites are still signaling from geosynchronous orbit, and the instruments in his plane calibrate with them and provide true bearings. Hig's always on his radio, hoping to raise a signal, and one day he hears a crackle, the cut-off name of a western Colorado city. Someone is out there, a functioning airport or a pilot or maybe both. He blunts his curiosity for several years.

"Still I think of the pilot's voice. The competence and the yearning. To connect. I think I should have gone there. Pushed the fuel, backed off the throttle, flown slow, maybe eighteen square, picked my morning and gone. To see. What, I don't know. Still I don't come close. To going. Admit it: I was scared. Of finding the interrupted dead as I had and had and had again. Nothing but. And running out of fuel before I was even back to Seven Victor Two which is Paonia, the airstrip up high on the narrow flat butte like an aircraft carrier. Running out of fuel in the 'dobe flats east of Delta. Going down in the shadow of Grand Mesa."

Eventually he goes: it's too tantalizing. In a shoot-first world, Heller's quite realistic about how one assesses threats, communicates, survives. And maybe gains trust. He makes readers question our own resourcefulness, our will to live when all we love is gone. Well worth pondering.


  1. I was kept fully engaged by this story, and, as a pilot of small planes, the added dimension of the flying sub-story heightened my enjoyment.

  2. I just did not want this book to end. It's hard to explain why I loved it so much. Poetic, sexy and a gorgeous view of the natural world. I don't usually rate the books I've read because I'm not very good at it, but just had to say a few words about this gem.