Peter Heller's 'Dog Stars': Isolation haunts narrator after epidemic
Adventurer writer Peter Heller's debut novel, "The Dog Stars," is set in a brutal, near-vacant frontier after a flu wipes out 99 percent of the population. The narrator Hig takes off in his Cessna looking for something, somewhere of what he once knew. Heller reads Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Peter HellerThe author of "The Dog Stars" will appear at 7 p.m. Monday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Hig, the one-named hero of Peter Heller's debut novel "The Dog Stars," is a man who struggles to differentiate dreams from memories. "I wake from dream into dream and am not sure why I keep going," he says; a pragmatic man with a touch of the poet, who notes delicately that dreams are "how we gentle our losses into paler ghosts."
Ghosts are almost all Hig has left: He's living in a Colorado turned into a deadly, near-vacant frontier by a vicious flu that killed 99 percent of the population, including his pregnant wife, Melissa, whose memory floats through the book like a soft cloud. (She died, in agony, "in an Elks Hall converted to a hospital and crammed with the cots of the dying not five hundred yards from our house.") With only his aging dog Jasper for company, Hig squats in the hangar of the small airport that houses his beloved plane, a 1956 Cessna. Joined occasionally by his only neighbor, the gun-crazed Bangley ("I guess he's my friend"), he focuses on survival in a grim war zone, watching for surprise attacks by those envious of his food and weapons cache. Though Hig has nothing left to lose, he isn't quite ready to die. "Nothing is something somehow."
One day, Hig flies out in his plane, wondering what might exist beyond his usual boundaries (he normally never flies further than a tank of gas's round trip), following a long-ago radio transmission that might mean a different life, somewhere. Like the heroes of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," he's venturing out into a dangerous, unknown world; a brutal blank slate left behind. Flying past the point of no return, he's looking for something normal, something that might bring back just a taste of what he once knew.
Heller, previously a nonfiction writer specializing in outdoor adventure tales, crafts "The Dog Stars" (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 320 pp.), in a jittery, abrupt first-person narrative whose rhythms at first seem problematic, perpetually stopping and starting like a plane in trouble sputtering along a runway. ("Eight miles of open ground to the mountain front, the first trees. That is our perimeter. Our safety zone. That is my job.") But as you read along, you get caught up in the offbeat rhythms, and they start to seem like a way that a lonely man would speak in the darkness, haltingly, finding comfort in shaping his story to his own voice, letting the story take as long as it needs to.
With its choppy sentence and paragraphs, and its way of drifting along with little happening for long stretches, "The Dog Stars" can lull a reader into complacency — and then Heller's writing gives you a heartbreaking jolt, like a sudden wakening from a dream. Hig knows more of pain than most of us, and he's thought about it; how pain is ever-present, like a friend. "And at night you can't bear to hear your own breath unaccompanied by another and underneath the big stillness like a score is the roaring of the cataract of everything being and being torn away. Then. The Pain is lying beside your side, close. Does not bother you with the sound even of breathing."
Moira Macdonald is The Seattle Times' movie critic.