First published back in August of 2012, US adventure writer and journalist, Peter Heller’s debut novel ‘The Dog Stars’ formed the writer’s first endeavour into the world of literary fiction.

DLS Synopsis:
It’s now nine years since the viral epidemic first spread across the world.  Flu-like in many ways, it was believed that the mutated virus was contracted via contact with infected body fluids.  A simple cough, sneeze or unwitting secretion could spell the end for anyone in close range.  Or so they believed anyway.

For forty-year-old Hig (or ‘Big Hig’ if you prefer) the viral epidemic had seen the death of his wife Melissa.  Although what finally took her wasn’t actually the virus, but in fact a smothering pillow delivered with nothing other than love, the  loss of his dear wife still cast a cloud over him.

And now here he is, living out the rest of his days on what’s left of the Erie airport, along with his old dog Jasper and his companion in these end days – Bruce Bangley.  Other than his dog, Bangley was the closest that Hig had to a friend or family now.  But Bangley isn’t exactly the most endearing of companions.  He’s a tough old goat.  A natural Survivalist (with a capital ‘S’).  Someone who was no doubt relishing the predicament that they all faced ever since the world went to hell.

Bangley was the sort of man who doesn’t do anything that isn’t aimed at surviving.  He had no time for recreation.  In his eyes, venturing away from the relative security of Erie’s perimeter, just to get away from it all, had no worth whatsoever.  But still, he let Hig go off in ‘the Beast’ whenever Hig needed to.  Bangley didn’t like it.  But he tolerated Hig’s brief excursions away from Erie.

However, what Bangley sure didn’t like was when Hig visited the Mennonites up in the nearby mountains.  The family had ‘the blood’.  In short – they were infected.  And slowly, one-by-one the weakest were dying off.  But they were still human.  At least in Hig’s eyes.  And so he liked to visit them from time to time; dropping off supplies and parting with any news that he may have.  Not that much really went on in the way of news these days.

Unfortunately, the world was no longer such a safe place.  Those that were left alive, were more often than not ruthless fighters who had survived solely through uncharitable violence.  In a dog-eat-dog world, you have to look after yourself first and foremost.  And if that means killing before asking questions – then so be it.

And so Hig’s role in Erie was to regularly fly his small 1956 Cessna 182 plane (‘the Beast’) around the airport’s perimeter, on the lookout for any potential threats.  Over the years he had come to know the land so well that it only took a slightly out of place rock, stone or patch of grass to giveaway the presence of any possible intruders.  And when they did arrive, Bangley would come in.  A sharpshooter, with one thing in mind – it’s him or them.  And he always came away the better.

But life for Hig and Bangley was about to deviate from the normalcy of what had become their day-to-day survival.  Things can change your frame of mind so quickly.  And when they do, it’s more often than not like a gathering snowball, picking up speed and making bigger and bigger changes until it’s too late to go back.  And during these times, is when you find out about the person you really are...

DLS Review:

Upon starting out on Heller’s post-apocalyptic debut, the first thing that instantly hits the reader is the author’s choice in stylised prose.  Very much in the same vein as Cormac McCarthy, Heller has adopted a flat way of delivering his tale, without the use of speech-marks or a number of other such aspects of normal punctuation.  Indeed, this choice in shadowing McCarthy’s uniquely stylised prose start to come across as a little tiresome, with an irritating air of pretentiousness about ‘breaking the rules’ with the way in which novels can be delivered.

Having adopted this McCarthy-esque prose, whilst also utilising a post-apocalyptic premise, instant comparisons to McCarthy’s award winning novel ‘The Road’ (2006) are sure to be drawn.  And indeed they should be, because it’s not just the premise and the prose that draw obvious similarities.  Along the way we also have frighteningly desperate survivors dishing out violence in order to simply stay alive.  We have a strong emotional aspect that seems mirrored to the earlier novel.  There just seems to be such an instantly recognisable tracing of McCarthy’s work, and although much much lighter in tone, the similarities are numerous.

The tale itself is delivered in the format of a narrative from the perspective of our principal protagonist – Hig.  From behind the eyes and inside the mind of this easily likeable character, the reader is given the viewpoint of an emotionally draining existence, where safety and compassion are pretty much a thing of the past.

Hig himself is a character that the reader wants to identify with from the outset.  He’s an honest man.  A good man, who’s not afraid to own up to his emotions when they are on the brink of spilling over.  He’s sharp-witted and quietly intelligent, without really pushing to become a particularly deep-thinker, just more of an average ponder-of-the-world.

And it’s with the characterisation that Heller’s novel really becomes quite a captivating read.  Although mildly irritated by the ‘wannabe prose’, this is soon mostly forgotten (and possibly forgiven) by the draw of two characters that just captivate the reader’s imagination.  Heller fleshes out Hig so beautifully, so intrinsically and with such an air of truthfulness that the reader feels they know the man inside out.  That he is a living, breathing person, whose inner thoughts have been exposed for all to see.

However, alongside this heart-warming and generally feel-good read is a second layer of post-apocalyptic brutality that bursts out sporadically throughout the tale.  Indeed, the action can (and does) unfurl into sharp stabs of quite disturbing brutality at any given moment.  At times swapping roles once again with that of ‘The Road’ (2006) or indeed the likes of ‘The Death Of Grass’ (1956) or ‘Among Madmen’ (1990).

Much of the violence, or elements of a more squeamish nature, are delivered in short but impactful statements, that purposefully leave a burning picture in the head of the reader.  From here the reader adds their own intensity to the matter.  Paint their own picture of the horrors involved.  And it works darn well.

Although accompanied with the tagline “A novel about the end of the world that makes you glad to be alive” it should be noted that there is plenty of sadness as well as joy to be had from the tale.  It feels honest in its weighing up of the world.  It feels particularly in touch with human nature, and is predominantly based around emotional turmoil alongside human interaction, in a time when such interaction is put under an unbelievable strain.

There’s love and loss and a rekindling of hope.  And the tale ends well, without slipping into the territory of soppy cheesiness.  And yeah, it does make you feel good to be alive.  Some would therefore say mission accomplished!

The novel runs for a total of 422 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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