Author : Peter Heller

Genre : Post-apocalyptic fiction

Publisher : Headline Review

BEING a fan of the post-apocalyptic tale and its accompanying reflections on human nature, I was immediately drawn to this one by, what else, the term “post-apocalyptic” on the cover.

The deal-clincher was another blurb, a quote from a review of the book in GQ magazine which called it “The Road – but with hope”.

Yep, that sort of did it. After all, I had – like many others – read Cormac McCarthy’s punctuation-challenged tale of a father and son trying to survive in a harsh catastrophe-stricken land (not so many, perhaps, watched the equally bleak movie adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen). I experienced both print and film versions, and was left quite devastated and drained, even though each one ended on a vaguely optimistic note.

Flipping through The Dog Stars, the debut novel from adventure writer Peter Heller, I felt I was back reading The Road again. Terse prose, short passages, all rules of punctuation tossed into the same toilet in which society/the civilised world was flushed down in its story.

In this case, it’s a sort of a superflu that wiped out enormous chunks of the population and left a few desperate survivors to team up and prey on each other. Forget attempts at rebuilding society, or organising little Woodbury-type communities. It’s every gang for itself.

The threat of the disease remains ever present, and the world – or at least, the section of the United States in which this book is set – has pretty much been frozen in time, like a fading snapshot that seems to lose a little more of its detail and vitality as time wears on.

We take in this diminishing land through the book’s narrator, known only as Hig, a poet and somewhat self-sufficient hunter-gatherer and outdoors-y type who still has some trouble with the idea of taking a human life … even if that other person is hell-bent on taking his.

Hig lost a lot when the bug hit the world. Now, nine years on, his world consists of his dog Jasper, his little Cessna plane, and his dangerous survivalist neighbour Bangley.

Hig provides air surveillance and early warnings of encroaching threats, and Bangley takes care of those threats when they get too close. This odd symbiotic relationship has sustained the two for years, and while it’s clear that Bangley tolerates Hig’s … idiosyncracies because of the air superiority he provides, you wonder if there isn’t some sort of slowly growing affection – and I mean this in the least bromantic kind of way – between the two.

For a while now, Hig has been living in the grip of a strange hope; while out flying a couple of years ago, he picked up a brief transmission from a nearby airport but to go there would mean leaving his neighbour / protector / potential killer alone for too long. Slowly, he’s been working up the courage to tell Bangley – clearly, a terrifying character even if he is “friendly” for the moment – that he wants, needs, to go investigate.

If you’re going to give this tale a shot, be warned that it is not as easy a read as the lean writing may lead you to think. Its elegiac observation of a deteriorating, decaying land can weigh a little heavily on you; escapist reading, this is not.

You may find it more rewarding, instead, to savour each passage as if it is a reminder to celebrate the things that give us joy in life, even as Hig mourns the things he has lost and those that are dying out.

These ruminations on survival and loss are punctuated by sudden bursts of violence, more loss, a happy discovery, a shocking revelation and a rather strange coming to terms. Each of these instances breaks the routine of Hig’s reverie (which sometimes go on too long, I must say) like the crack of a whip, and are so engaging that I could excuse the author’s tendency to get lost inside Hig’s head.

One encounter, where he tries to convince a crusty old ex-Serviceman with a sniper rifle that he has come in peace, is pretty amusing; and the truth behind the intercepted transmission mentioned earlier is at once horrifying and profoundly sad.

Typical of the genre, The Dog Stars does not end so much as it leaves the reader with a reasonably satisfying resolution of its major plot threads, while departing on a note filled with both hope and fear. Heller has given us a likeable protagonist, admirable in his frailty and hesitation and the courage he shows in overcoming them, and it’s refreshing to see the same sort of blighted land – the kind conjured by writers from Richard Matheson to Stephen King – through Hig’s poet’s eyes.

If there’s any “hero” of the genre who deserves all the happiness that can be squeezed out of a miserable situation, it’s this guy, someone who stubbornly (and not in vain) clings on to humanity in the most dehumanising of circumstances.