End of the world? We have been down this road be­fore

The Dog Stars

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Wil­liam Hey­ward Wil­liam Hey­ward

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.

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