A cover that reminded me of Alaska, comparisons to The Road, and constant displays in the bookstore were enough for me to pick up The Dog Stars (2013) by Peter Heller. Before delving in, I knew only that the story was post apocalyptic and involved a plane. When I began, I was surprised to find out that the main character, Hig, lived in my hometown of Denver.
Suddenly I was reading about my neighborhood and my favorite bookstore. And it wasn't until I read the descriptions of Hig flying his small plane over the area, that I e-mailed my friend--my friend who loves flying and took me up in his small plane one afternoon. I thought he'd enjoy a book that involved flying around the Denver-Metro area in small planes. His response to me was: "I've read Peter's book because he's a good friend of mine." Now, this really shouldn't make much of a difference to me, it's not like I know the guy. But I've never been only one degree of separation from a bestselling author. I peppered my friend with questions about how much was made up and how much was based on the author's life--which he didn't bother answering. In fact, I kind of wish I hadn't learned about this connection until I'd finished reading the book because I found it kind of distracting.
Anyway, about the book: Hig is probably in his 40's and lives with his dog at a small airport in Eerie, Colorado. One older man, a survivalist gun expert, stays with him. Although they have drastically different philosophies and styles, the two have formed a symbiotic relationship for survival purposes. A combination of disease and ecological disasters have devastated the world. The few people not wasting away by sickness are scavanging murderously about the country. The trout are gone and hotter weather continues unabated. The story revolves around Hig, focusing primarily on his thoughts, his emotions, and his observations of the world around him. On the whole, it's a quiet story, requiring patience and careful reading, punctuated by small periods of sheer terror when danger approaches.
Hig has lost everyone he's ever known or loved, except for his dog and constant companion, Jasper. Hig's turned into a killer to protect himself and he only finds escape from his life with flying and fishing.
"When I lost my high school girlfriend, I fished. When in a fit of frustration and despair I quit writing anything, I fished. I fished when I met Melissa and barely dared to hope that I had found someone I could love in a way that surpassed anything I had known. I fished and fished and fished. When the trout got hit with disease, I fished. And when the flu finally took her in an Elks Hall converted to a hospital and crammed with the cots of the dying not five hundred yards from our house, I fished." (58)
Heller creates a believable look into a worst case (or close to worst case) scenario of our future and how people might react to a wide-ranging disaster. The starkness of Hig's life allows him a clearer look at what's important in life. "Funny how you can live a a whole life waiting and not know it...Waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe the most real thing the end. To realize that when it's too late." (215)
I liked this book. I was impressed by Heller's ability to convey Hig's feelings as well as the poetic descriptions of the land and surroundings. Although similar in many ways to The Road and not quite as impactful to me, The Dog Stars had it's own feel and focus. There was still hope in Heller's world, but it's also sad and haunting and sticks with you after you finish it.
When Hig finally lost Jasper, I could see it coming a mile away. As soon as that poor dog was tired on their hike, I knew. I wanted to yell at Hig to stop pushing him, and I was still devastated when Hig woke up and found his only real companionship, and link to before, gone.