End of the world? We have been down this road before
The Dog Stars
By Peter Heller Headline, 422pp, $29.99
PETER Heller’s debut novel The Dog Stars is set in a post-apocalyptic America. The narrator is a white, middle-aged, middle-class American man named Hig (‘‘My name is Hig, one name. Big Hig if you need another.’’) Some kind of illness referred to as ‘‘ the Blood’’ has killed almost everyone else on the planet. (The exact nature of the disease is never revealed but towards the end of the novel, in deliciously archetypal fashion, the possibility is raised that the government was to blame.)
And there’s a small cast of secondary characters who provide adversary, companionship, romance and assistance to Hig as he negotiates life on a depopulated earth.
This is familiar and potentially rich territory (think, most recently, of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The post-apocalyptic is universal in storytelling; every generation and civilisation can conceive of its total annihilation by flood, nuclear war or carbon emissions. So, the question for this book is: will it do the conventions of the genre proud?
Big Hig is an uncomplicated, likable man who enjoys ‘‘ old singer-songwriter, climb out of the bottle, country road’’ music and the company of his dog, Jasper. Sure, near total annihilation of human life on earth has been tough, but he’s trying to keep his chin up all the same. The list he gives early in the novel of things that he has had to endure in the nine years since the disaster is instructive. According to Hig, ‘‘ Nine years is pretty f . . king long . . . To miss my wife after. To think about fishing and not go. Other stuff.’’
He’s lucky to have managed to find a sanctuary in the countryside at an old airport where he and another man, Bangley, have learned to subsist and defend themselves against marauding bands of survivors. Hig is the more sensitive of the two. He’s also a pilot and has kept the planes running. Bangley’s a ruthless killer and tactician, but you get the impression (sort of) that his heart is in the right place. The two keep each other alive, until one day the death of Jasper prompts an inconsolable melancholy in Hig and he goes in search of something.
Big Hig narrates his lonely, dangerous adventures in staccato prose, keeping his sentences to a minimum number of words, the general effect of which is not so much an economy of storytelling (the novel is 400 pages long) but instead the feeling of driving a long, potholed road. Now and then the prose falls into a rhythmic pattern that can be read with ease and pleasure — until Heller tries for a touch of lyricism and overreaches, never more awkwardly than when Hig explains that he’s telling us his story to ‘‘ animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty’’. The dialogue, too, between Big Hig and the rest of the cast is heavy with Hollywoodese cliche (‘‘Anyway I bet I could fly this sucker’’).
There’s a lot of violence, casual and unselfconscious. It’s established early on and then rarely questioned that Bangley and Hig have had no choice but to kill everyone they meet and that all co-operation between people has ceased. There’s a particularly educational scene in which Hig comes into contact with some fellow survivors scavenging for Coke cans. He tries to be merciful but ends up shooting everyone. In typical vocabulary, Bangley later scolds Hig for hesitating because, eventually, ‘‘ You discover, oh surprise surprise, that the man is a rapist and a killer like every other survivor walking around this goddamn country. Holy shit. What a goddamn shock. Goddamn.’’ Indeed, some of the most energetic writing is deployed is service of the many visceral, eroticised fight scenes.
Unfortunately, The Dog Stars doesn’t treat the conventions of post-apocalyptic fiction with any freshness, brightness or even much decency. It’s a mediocre action movie in the form of a novel. There are a handful of moments of dramatic tension that are swamped by long passages of violence and corny dialogue. The characters are marionettes and the gross fight scenes feel choreographed. I could sense within the book a traditional, hard-edged story about a reluctant hero, but it never stood a chance.