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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012)

Post-apocalyptic tale of survival and hope (?). Really an existential meditation on life, with an emphasis on "waiting" for the real life to begin versus living life really, in the here-and-now.

This one was a challenge (I think I started it three times before managing to finish it). It's very "literary" in the sense that the story is not told in a straightforward narrative, but is instead part stream-of-consciousness, with constant flashbacks/memories, at least until the mid-point. As some of the criticism I've read says, it's two books--the first half, about the protagonist Hig's relationship with the survivalist Bangley; the second half about his journey (by airplane) into the unknown, seeking something more. Miraculously, he finds it, but almost loses everything; of course he doesn't, and he manages to even rescue Bangley in the end. In the second half, Hig finds two more survivors, a father and his (adult) daughter, and he and the daughter eventually start a relationship. Although that takes a long time to develop.

Post-apocalyptic, but super flu, not zombies. But as in a zombie story, once civilization collapses, the greatest threat to the survivors is other survivors. Hig, Bangley, and the rest have a number of encounters with "raiders".

Hard to know who would like this one. It's poetic, literary (as I said). But with a science fiction premise. It's a bit like Colson Whitehead's Zone One, the literary zombie apocalypse novel. (I liked Zone One quite a bit, but it's not one that I would recommend to many people.)

 This one could actually make a good movie. There's enough action, but a simple enough plot. Like The Road, but with less cannabalism and airplanes? (Btw, I haven't seen the movie, but I did read the book. Certainly less dark than The Road.)

This was Heller's first novel, even though he's an experienced magazine writer and a published poet. The protagonist is clearly based on Heller's own experiences, to a great extent. Heller must be a pilot, for example, given the detailed exposition about flying a small Cessna. And a fly fisherman.


At 10:07 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

"Who would like this one," you ask? Me, me, me! I absolutely loved the book.

One thing you sort of left out of the review: the reason the book is hard to start is because the prose is almost poetry in its sparseness and it takes a while to get into the style. I resisted at first but was utterly convinced by the end.

One thing you TOTALLY left out of your review: it's not just about relationships to other humans and raiders, it's very much about his relationship with his dog. The "two part" nature of the book isn't arbitrary, but is all about this.

The book will clearly read differently to dog lovers and owners than to non dog lovers and owners.

I'll trade you a recommendation: read the Tyler Hamilton book if you haven't already. Incredible.

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Number Three said...


I tried to make that first point but failed. The second point (Jasper), well, that's a weak point of mine. I'm just not a dog lover. And so I guess you accept that his rash decisions in part two are motivated by the death of his dog? OK, I can get there, with effort.


At 4:38 PM, Blogger Number Three said...

And Fro, it's funny that we still read the same books!

At 11:51 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

Yep, I don't really even consider the part II decisions rash. His new life (post apocalypse) doesn't even begin until after he loses his dog. The two of them were not really living but were just holding onto each other in the face of all they had lost. The death of the dog is his rebirth into the new bleak world, and for a while he acts like a child in that world trying to figure it out.

I sort of assumed that the book reads very differently to dog lovers and non dog lovers. A am not all that emotional when I read books, but I cried a LOT in the middle of that book. For me it made the whole book really work, made it possible for me to understand his life before he lost his dog and made it possible for me to make sense of his choices after.

Yeah, I was surprised to see you review this one - small world I guess!


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