After The Road won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005, critics thought Cormac McCarthy had the final word on post-apocalyptic literary fiction.
They didn't see Peter Heller coming.
In The Dog Stars, a national bestseller that appeared on multiple "best of" lists when it was released last year, Heller employs all the tropes of the popular genre, and yet still manages to say something new about the end of the world—a landscape that has made the rounds in recent years on both page and screen.
What's so captivating about the cataclysmic demise of life as we know it? Plenty, according to contemporary consumers. In the last few years alone, TV shows like "The Walking Dead," "Revolution," and "Jericho," play out grisly scenarios, while big budget features that focus on doomsdays of one kind or another have never been more popular. Certainly this dramatized dance with death is nothing new, and while it might be easy to dismiss these echoing themes as easy targets for entertainers, such an oversimplification doesn't do justice to the artists, Heller among them, who see the end as just another beginning.
In The Dog Stars, a worldwide flu pandemic claims the lives of nearly everyone in the country, leaving us a poet-angler-pilot named Hig to bear witness to what comes next. Left in almost complete isolation, save for crotchety companion Bangley and his faithful dog Jasper, Hig hears a strange voice over the radio of his 1956 Cessna. The signal is too far away for a round trip flight, transmitted from just past the point of no return. Torn between remaining alone in relative safety, or risking everything to discover who or what has survived, Hig is compelled to act when a series of disasters makes him question his eroding humanity.
Certainly, the premise of The Dog Stars is fascinating in its own right. But the stylistic choices Heller makes as a writer invite the reader into a deeply intimate world, to travel with Hig through the extremes of loss and bounty, revulsion and desire, terror and hope—always hope. Using fragmented sentences and choppy, stream of consciousness language, Heller allows the reader to think as Hig does, know as he knows, and begin to understand something about the human condition that slowly reveals itself. "Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains."
Heller, whose previous success as an adventure writer and essayist serves him well, finds his true literary voice in The Dogs Stars. It is a novel that both asserts and confounds expectations. Whether you experience the apocalypse as a nightmare or a fantasy, you'll finish The Dog Stars with a new perspective on what it means to be alive.
"A Novel Idea" presents Peter Heller
Fri., May 2
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St.
Free, registration required at towertheatre.org.