About a fifth of the way through Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars” is a paragraph that captures the theme of this post-apocalyptic novel.
“Life and death 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. And life was inside death, virulent and insistent as a strain of flu. How it should be.”
A flu pandemic, augmented by the spread of a blood disease, has extinguished almost all human existence and Hig- actually Big Hig- the main character, is in a partnership of convenience with Bangley, an elder survivalist, at a small airport in rural Colorado. In a Mad Max environment Hig has to fight to ignore his humanitarian instinct. Part “Travels With Charley” with Hig’s dog Jasper, the exploration is by Cessna of remaining natural surroundings and human remains.
From the ashes of the book, like a Phoenix life explodes from the narrative. It is an ode to flying, fly fishing, hunting, flora, and fauna. It is a dog love story. There are unexpected twists; each character felt.
There are two paths poets transitioning to prose can take. One is excessively metaphorical and the other is tautly expressive. Mr. Heller wisely chose the latter. Grammar check would be impossible. Sentences can be a word. It is not contrived, as is often the case when writers take this route. It reflects fractured synapses of loss, or visual acuity. It fits, and the novel flows quickly.
Mr. Heller is by trade a non-fiction and adventure writer for NPR and men’s outdoor magazines. He writes what he knows and it comes through. It is not a macho book. There is tenderness and perception of the human condition at its extremes.
He describes the last moments of his Uncle Pete’s life.
What would you do in your last moments when you are still relatively healthy and lucid to do it? Uncle Pete’s choice to catalog his photos first confounds Hig.
“But lying one night in my old bunk under a wide open window listening to a screech owl trying to terrify me with a woman’s screams and only making me happy- the bittersweet cry of undigestible beauty and great impending loss-then it came to me: the obvious epiphany that he was reliving his life. Doh. Slide by slide, picture by picture. He was aggregating memory like a wall against extinction and the little boxes of slides were his bricks.”
This book is a must read.