Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Unusually introspective for a post-apocalyptic survival story, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is also remarkable for the voice of its narrator, Hig. 

"I don't want to be confused: we are nine years out. The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day."

Hig's only companions are his dog and a guy who would rather kill people than speak to them. They live at a small airport and Hig's regular patrols with a 1956 Cessna relieve the bleak monotony of his lonely life. He's a man of few words, but he does love language. In the night when his dog wakes at his side and sniffs, Hig is reminded of a poem from the Tang dynasty.

"I lift my head from the pillow
I see the frost the moon.
Lowering my head I think of home.

Li Po's most famous poem.

Even then: long before before the end, the bottomless yearning. Almost never home, any of us."

I love the way Heller makes Hig so real and his interior life so accessible -- using prose that's brief to the point of terseness. This next is an excerpt from Hig's memory of a time he chatted with a religious fellow who happened to be skiing at the same resort:

"We just follow the Bible word for word he said. Word for word you can't go wrong. Shook his head nice smile. I'd be crazy to disbelieve him.

I told him I always got stuck at the Begats. I said I had just read Lamentations though and it seemed like Mad Max. I mean women eating their babies, everybody dying.

He didn't laugh.

He said, I try to stay on the Right Side of the Bible. Left side was written by Jews. Some things to pay attention to, I guess, but if I were you I'd start with John.

We should have all paid more attention to the Left Side I am thinking now. The Wrong Side, the Side Where Shit Goes Really Really Wrong."

Some parts of The Dog Stars are like Mad Max and maybe even like the Old Testament. Mostly, it's a book that made me think about what is important in life. It's also surprisingly uplifting.

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