Monday, 13 August 2012
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
I'm a bit wary of post-apocalypse books. I've had The Road on my bookshelf for some time, courtesy of elder son, and I can't quite make myself read it. So when I was offered something that seemed to be along those lines by the publisher, my response was a little tentative. I certainly wasn't about to commit myself to finishing a book if I didn't like it -- on the other hand, the American reviews sounded favourable and suggested that a little effort might be in order.
And it wasn't an effort at all. Peter Heller's book The Dog Stars is about an essentially cultured man forced into an alien role when most of the population has been wiped out by some sort of plague. Only infected people and marauding gangs remain. On the Colorado airfield to which he's retreated (and from which he still flies his two-seater plane), Hig will do what he has to to survive, but he's not going to seek out trouble for its own sake. As he tells his story, often terse and sometimes contemplative, we learn that, although by necessity capable of self-defence, he's no tough, unimaginative outdoors survivalist and he is unapologetic about his affection for his dog, Jasper, who is a much better and more appreciated companion than the man he shares the airfield with. Bangley is a survivalist, weaponed up and ruthless, but he and Hig each gain from having someone else to watch their backs and have weathered a number of attacks. Hig is haunted, though, by a faint message that suggests there are other healthy survivors, and he sometimes wonders whether he'll settle Jasper on his special quilt in the front of the Cessna and set out to look for them. But mostly he's as content as it's possible to be with the day-to-day routines of his life, growing vegetables, lying out under the stars at night, and flying, which offers detachment from the "sticky details" of everyday existence. Until something happens to spur him into action...
In this very plausible depiction of post-apocalyptic America, the action alternates with lyricism to make something much more than a run-of-the-mill adventure story. There are echoes of Saint-Exupery, not just in the transformative nature of flight but in an essential innocence in the hero. Even while aware of the need to be mistrustful of other people, Hig can still feel warmth towards them, and he grieves for the animals that are gone, and the trout he used to catch. In Hig's relationship with the world that is left, the author's love of the outdoors is palpable -- here is no imagined wilderness, but one that is real and intimately known. And hope remains. If this is a parable of our impending and self-inflicted apocalypse, Heller is telling us that it's not yet time to give up.