It’s a dystopian world out there. And there are few survivors, most of the world’s population and wildlife having succumbed to a fatal flu. Those that remain, remain only because they are hardy and resourceful, or because they have “the blood” and nobody can come near them for risk of infection. Our hero is Big Hig, who has lost wife and unborn child to the flu. He survives because he has combined forces with terse neighbor Bruce Bangley, to keep the predators at bay. Bangley brings with him his large arsenal of guns and ammunition and Hig has the “Beast” – his 80 year old four seater Cessna. They enforce a perimeter, and patrol it via land and air, and make short shrift of trespassers. Hig survives year after year with only Bangley, dog Jasper and painful memories for company. Their only other (harmless) human neighbors are a band of people – the Menonites – who have “the blood”, and live within flying distance.
Hig’s plane’s radio is silent, because there is no one around, but he calls out anyway, hoping for a reply. In all these 9 years only once has his call been answered. Repeat mayday calls have not brought about a repeat response. He has almost given hope of finding that lost radio caller, until one day, after one more unexpected loss, Hig, in desperation, decides to fly out beyond the Point of No Return – the point at which he would not have enough fuel to get back – to find other survivors . . .
I elected to read this via NetGalley because of the interesting premise: what happens after the apocalypse? And those that do survive, how do they do it ? Heller paints a vivid picture, via Hig’s words – clipped thought they maybe. Initially there are only two characters, and a dog, and there isn’t much going on except survival, but the book is un-put-down-able. Heller has a way with words, short sentences, casually said, but resonating with feeling :
Sometimes back then, fishing with Jasper up the Sulphur, I hit my limit. I mean it felt my heart might just burst. Bursting is different than breaking. Like there is no way to contain how beautiful. Not it either, not just beauty. Something about how I fit. This little bend of smooth stones, the leaning cliffs. The smell of spruce. The small cutthroat making quiet rings in the black water of a pool. And no need to thank even. Just be. Just fish. Just walk up the creek, get dark, get cold, it is all a piece. Of me somehow.
Hig as the main protagonist, is at once strong and weak. Smart enough to cope with changing circumstances, he is not quite the ruthless survivalist Bangley is; Bangley has to get him out of more than one life-threatening situations. He longs for companionship, unlike trigger-happy Bangley, who is fine with solitude, and not in favor of Hig flying off of on a wild goose chase. But vulnerable as Hig is, Heller builds him up beautifully; you root for him, you cry in his sorrow and laugh in his joy.
Hig’s story, because that is what “Dog Stars” is, boils down to one main idea – that of hope. Even after devastating loss, in dire desolation and faced with lonely reality, hope survives. Hig must chance the one thing left to him – his life – to justify that emotion.
This is a magnificent novel and an uplifting read. Highly recommended.