As a person who is quite weary of post-apocalyptic/dystopian portrayals and was never a huge fan of them to begin with, I can say decisively that Peter Heller’s novel The Dog Stars is my favorite offering from the genre. This is one of those rare books that makes you feel a little bit more human.
The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Hig, has “an extraordinary gift for hope” (Gatsby reference, for those interested) that gives the whole affair a rather different tone than something like 1984 or The Road; Hig is endearingly childlike and atypically loving in a world where survival is the highest virtue.
The central question of the book, in Hig’s words, is this: “Is it possible to love so desperately that life is unbearable?” (Page 55). The narrative poetically explores the connections between loss, love, humanity in a way that’s compellingly original (and considering the topics, that’s no easy task).
I don’t want to give much of the book away, because everyone should read it, so here are a couple points for thought either while reading or just while living normally.
Why does loss define us in ways “having” cannot? We all heard the idiom as kids: ‘you don’t know the worth of water until the well runs dry.’ To some extent, this is untrue, but the idea is that a dry well can define your being more powerfully than a wet one, precisely because you always knew the worth of water and could see a future in which you wouldn’t have it. And now that the future has arrived, it hurts just as much as you expected, but that doesn’t help ease the pain. Hig’s response to loss is largely this irrational hope that goodness is still out there somewhere; in him, in other people, in the world. Everything he’s lost is so valuable to him that all he can do is remember it passionately and hope for its resurgence.
What are the things that are most vital to us? Which are the pieces that give us texture? And how do those pieces shape our interaction with the world? In short, what makes us human? Hig treasures the small hours he spends fishing with his dog and the lightness and detachment he feels flying recon over a broken world. These things are incredibly important to the book in the way that our own versions of fishing and flying are incredibly important to our identities. These things make Hig feel like he’s finally awake after years of a nightmarish existence killing to avoid dying.
And that’s one of the biggest ways the book addresses the question of humanity: why does Hig want to stay alive? He’s lost everything he cares about; he laments that even the trout have died off and carp just aren’t the same. Look for this in the book. When does Hig most desperately want to live, and when does he proclaim to not care if he dies? What determines his attitude?
Last selling point—the book does a phenomenal job using first-person. It has some stream-of-consciousness elements, but mostly it paints a deep picture of a person who ultimately isn’t so unlike his readers. I’d rank The Dog Stars second in terms of quality-drop-off-if-it-had-been-third-person, behind only The Catcher in the Rye.
So read this. If you do, disappointment is not in the stars.