by Nick Bogdanich
As a fan of the post apocalyptic genre, I appreciated Peter Heller’s knowledge of the canon. His novel The Dog Stars features allusions to everything from Mad Max to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, to the television show Life After People. Where many post apocalyptic narratives seem to dispense with all but the most abstract references to some barely relevant past, Heller’s landscape is more firmly rooted in the detritus of civilization. In this way, The Dog Stars justifies itself among other examples of the genre by begging the question: what draws us to it? Why do we relish imagining ourselves in scenarios where society has fractured and our only function is survival?
The novel’s protagonist Hig is having trouble adapting to the apocalypse, although, despite the loss, loneliness, and killing, things are actually looking up for him. His compound is well fortified and well stocked. He spends his days fishing in the woods with his dog and going on Coca-Cola runs in his small plane to an overturned delivery truck. For Hig’s gun enthusiast survival partner Bangley, the apocalypse has uncovered his true calling: guarding the perimeter of the compound. He scoffs at Hig for taking too much recreational pleasure in fishing trips, which Bangley considers risky and lacking sufficient return in resources.
The relationship between these two characters is one of this novel’s most compelling devices. Hig struggles to maintain the status quo with his psychopathic partner, who seems to prefer the safety of solitude to accommodating Hig’s impetuous questing for both, minor luxuries, and a greater significance to life than mere survival.
[Bangley] didn’t do anything that wasn’t aimed at surviving…Sometimes I think the only reason he kept me around was so he had someone to witness his prowess in the winning of each day…to let me know that it was him. That he vouchsafed our survival…”
Heller entices the reader with this Eden that Bangley provides through a sniper’s scope, truncating pastoral, taxonomy laden descriptions of the Colorado plains with jarring instances of trespassers gunned down indiscriminately and turned to jerky for the dog. In these scenes, the pared down, halting syntax obfuscates only occasionally and permits a close, unrefined perspective on the mounting tensions that lead Hig to consider leaving this safe haven which most post apocalyptic characters set out in search of.
Since the relationship between Hig and Bangley is more complex and unique than the love interest that fills its place in the second half of the novel, I wish Hig could have taken Bangley with him.
If I thought I could defend this place by myself I would shoot Bangley where he stands and get it over with. Would I? Maybe. And then I would miss this sparring every day…we really have become like a married couple.
We can’t help but be disappointed when Heller trades this weird tension for the trivial awkwardness that precedes Hig’s romance, which seems like a foregone conclusion from his first encounter with the love object Cima. Heller also attempts to fill Bangley’s void with the character of Pops, who by Hig’s own description is a lot like Bangley, and feels rehashed to the reader.
Where Heller really shines is in his elegiac descriptions of the rivers along which Hig fishes. It’s a testament to Heller’s command of language and detail that he can make us grieve and root for the environment itself amidst all the human strife that takes place within it.
I heard a canyon wren, the six seven eight paced notes whistling down a scale never used by man. I…saw the dipping flight of the kingfisher I’d seen almost every morning. Moving fast up the stream. The bigger rivers like the Gunnison weren’t drying up. Not yet.
Hig takes refuge in these strongholds. The ugliness that society embodies in its present form drives him to them, and makes him appreciate their potential for regeneration all the more. *
Nick Bogdanich is a candidate for creative writing (fiction) at Iowa State University and a member of the Flyway staff.