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Pot-apocalyptic novel nuanced

Gifted writer takes on world of horror

By Drew Gallagher

THE APPEARANCE of literary fiction on best-seller lists these days is almost as rare as jobs for graduating English majors.  So I was pleased and intrigued when I saw that Peter Heller’s novel “The Dog Stars” débuted on the New York Times list at No.  13.

Heller’s having a novel on the list is especially interesting because he’s not one of the established heavy hitters like John Irving or Stephen King, whose novels have to make an obligatory appearance regardless of merit (though those reputations are certainly earned).  He has written a number of nonfiction books and is a popular contributor on NPR, but those factors do not a best-seller make and this is his first foray into fiction.  In short, I was pulling for Heller, and  was hoping that “The Dog Stars” wouldn’t disappoint.  “The Dog Stars” did not disappoint.

In a post-apocalyptic world that authors like Cormac McCarthy and James Howard Kunstler have mined so well recently, Heller has given us a nuanced novel to be savored, a novel that manages to find beauty and love in a world full of horror and pain.  It is a novel that deserves its spot on the best-seller list, and one hopes that stay will be  an   extended one.

Hig and his dog Jasper have escaped a flu virus that has seemingly killed off most of the world’s population.  Hig owns a Cessna at the local airport and retreats there to await his future that has surprisingly lasted nine years already.  His only companion, other than his dog, is Bangley, a secretive older man who is also holed up at the airport building with an arsenal of weapons and who tolerates Hig mostly because he has an airplane at his disposal and can use it for surveillance.  And they need surveillance.

The end of the known world, is not a pretty place and the remaining survivors are plagued by hunger and thirst and the well-stocked airport compound is targeted often.   The marauders, and a distant radio transmission, are evidence that life has continued in other pockets of the world, and Hig decides to take off in his Cessna to gather news and maybe supplies to bring back to Bangley.  The exploratory junket puts both men in grave danger.

As one might expect, the extinction of most of the world’s population is ripe with pathos, but it’s the disappearing aspects of nature—trout and elk—that resonate deeper with Hig and the reader.  When you’ve lost everything only to find that the world wasn’t quite as empty as you imagined, then the true fight begins.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.


By Peter Heller

(Knopf, $24.95, 336 pp.)


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