A Post-Apocalyptic Book That Raises the Bar on Bleakness

In some ways, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a cozy sort of post-apocalyptic novel. As the novel begins, the main character has a pretty comfortable life, with plenty of supplies and a safe place to sleep. He has a pet dog and a buddy who helps keep him safe from the roving bands of desperate people willing to kill for food. And yet, the first half of The Dog Stars makes a persuasive case that the most horrifying fate after the collapse of civilization might actually be having a modicum of comfort — because of the things you'd have to do to preserve it.

Spoilers ahead...

The Dog Stars is a beautifully written book with a pretty simple story. In a nutshell, some kind of mutated flu wipes out 99 percent of the human race. And meanwhile, global climate change wipes out a lot of the wildlife, although there are still plenty of some animals around. The main character, Hig, lives in a deserted old McMansion, with just his dog and a survivalist named Bangley for company. And Hig and Bangley pretty much practice a "shoot first and ask questions later" policy when it comes to strangers — Bangley has built a huge sniper tower and a massive arsenal, allowing him to kill anyone who even comes near their homes. And Hig has a small airplane which he flies around, scouting for possible threats and occasionally helping with the slaughter.

Oh, and Hig won't resort to cannibalism himself — in fact, he's pretty good at hunting the remaining wildlife — but he does feed dead people to his dog. Right around the time you watch Hig murder a man over an abandoned truck with a few cans of Coca Cola in it — and then try to feed the man's remains to his dog — you're not entirely sure you're reading about the good guy here.

A Post-Apocalyptic Book That Raises the Bar on Bleakness

Meanwhile, Hig has picked up a mysterious signal from Grand Junction, which is outside the range where he could fly is plane and still have enough fuel to fly back home. The signal makes it sound as though there's still a functioning, fully staffed airport at Grand Junction — but Hig lets a few years go by without investigating. Until things start to fall apart in his comfortable nest.

I won't give away what happens in the second half of the book — but suffice to say that it gets considerably less disturbing and horrifying in the second half. And you're not really reading this book for the plot, but more for the slow boil of the characters coping with their new survivalist world.

The writing in this book is beautifully sparse. Here's a passage early on, where Hig is describing helping Bangley to take out a group of seven heavily armed intruders:

It was three of them that survived the first volley and after that we had our first bona fide firefight. But they didn't have night goggles and they didn't know the terrain and so it didn't take long.

Later, pondering the mystery of his sorta-friend Bangley, who's so comfortable killing everyone who moves and not at all comfortable with any kind of intimacy or communication, the narrator says:

Also I wonder how Bangley is built inside and everyone like him. He is as at home with his solitude as the note reverberating inside a bell. Prefers it. Will protect it to the death. Lives for protecting it the way a peregrine lives for killing other birds midflight. Does not want to communicate what the death and the beauty do to each other inside him.

A Post-Apocalyptic Book That Raises the Bar on Bleakness

Bangley believes, fundamentally, in a world where everyone is "out for himself," and there's not much point in reaching out to other people — he only forms an alliance with Hig because Hig can fly the plane, and Hig and his dog provide an early warning system for night-time attackers. Bangley is a deeply unlikable character, who makes fun of Hig for having any human feelings at all, and only really seems to come alive when he's slaughtering people.

And meanwhile, despite the business of feeding people to his dog, Hig starts to emerge as a fundamentally decent person in a horrible world, someone who wants to do the right thing. He gives us just enough information about his former life, before the collapse of everything, that you can imagine being like him. And he occasionally looks in on a small community of Mennonites who are wasting away with the blood sickness.

Heller's writing is starkly simple, and obviously reaching for Hemingway-esque spareness. But he manages to include some really striking images and turns of phrase here and there, like the notion of "unzipping" the bones of a newly caught fish.

The other way this book really shines is in the attention to technical detail — it feels very much like the voice of someone who lives with the guns and the airplane as vital tools of every day survival. The writing is amazingly precise, and full of little technical details about shooting or flying — and a lot of the second half of the book hinges on a very close reading of the airplane's instructional manual, as to exactly how long a runway you need to take off, depending on the amount of weight the plane is carrying. The intensity of the geekery in this book is quite impressive.

But the second half, which we won't really get into here, is what makes The Dog Stars more than just another "long slog through the dismal post-apocalypse" book. Some stuff happens that opens up Hig's emotional world, and allows you to see him from the other side a bit.

And most of all, we finally see Bangley — the emotionally stunted murderer who makes the first half of the book so unpleasant — in a brand new light. The ending of the book flips things around somewhat, and you see Bangley as a more nuanced, and maybe even a slightly nobler, character than you thought you were seeing before. This reversal is slightly miraculous, and finally makes you realize that you've been reading, not just a particularly intense post-apocalyptic tale, but also a great character study.