Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller - reviewed by John Greenwood

In the world of The Dog Stars, humanity has been decimated by a combination of killer flu and a HIV-like blood disease, with only zero point something of the population surviving the apocalypse. The survivors, at least in the USA where the novel is set, can be divided into isolated homesteaders and marauding bands of scavengers. Amateur Cessna pilot Hig is one of the former, and together with his gun-obsessive friend Bangley, he defends a tiny rural airport against any feral remnants of humanity who make it over the mountain. Together they make an effective, if inharmonious team. Hig can't stomach the killing, and Bangley the ruthless tactician cannot secure their perimeter without regular flights to check for intruders approaching their borders. But after nine years of this successful strategy, Hig suffers a shock that leads him to follow a faint transmission from another airport situated beyond his fuel supply's point of no return.

The Dog Stars isn't as big a book as it first appears. There's an unusually large amount of white space spread across its pages. A whole line between each short paragraph and between each line of dialogue means that many pages contain less than 100 words. At first this led me to wonder whether it was a deliberate attempt to express the silence and emptiness of the post-human American wilderness, the way Aaron Copland removed the middle notes from his chords to evoke the wide open spaces of the frontier years. More prosaically, it might simply be that readers in the era of Twitter are growing more intolerant of large, dense blocks of text, combined with the cheapness of paper, and steadily growing expectations of what is a normal novel length.

The other stylistic quirk that jumps out is Heller's tendency to truncate and de-punctuate, so that we get sentences such as "My memory serves but not stellar ha", or simply "And" or "Then" followed by a full stop. Once I clicked with the vernacular rhythm, it felt like listening to a good raconteur who is speaking between swigs of beer at a bar, or more likely trying to concentrate on doing something else (like flying a Cessna airplane) while breaking off every now and then to continue the narrative. Hig's is a very engaging voice, and only in the final third of the book, when he and the female lead character reveal something of their back stories to one another, does the tone lose its tautness and drive, and begins to sound like the sort of monologue delivered onscreen as Oscar-bait.

The pace shifts gears efficiently between meditations on Hig's past during his hunting and fishing trips into the mountain, and grisly skirmishes in which Hig and Bangley fight off poorly-armed but well-motivated desperadoes, Bangley's tactical perfectionism means that the author can ratchet up the tension in these fight sequences, as they are first rehearsed in exquisite technical detail, then enacted in far more chaotic and nerve-jangling fire fights.

Bangley is a fascinating character in his own right - a humourless, merciless survivalist whose day has finally come. His motto is the Hank Williams Jr. song title "A Country Boy Can Survive", and it is his ilk who inherit the earth once the plague has swept the last vestiges of civilisation away. Hig's reflective, impulsive, almost flaky character is a liability for them both. Although far from preachy, The Dog Stars is a novel which opposes two world views. Bangley will always prevail, but as he litters the airport perimeter with corpses, he can ultimately only grow more alone. Hig is not a competent survivor: he loses concentration and hankers after the old days. But it takes a foolish mistake on his part and an admission of his own vulnerability to establish the possibility that communities might again develop between the few atomised individuals left alive.

In the last third of the novel, I began to see the plot rolling out ahead of me according to the standard Hollywood model of redemption, but for the most part this is a well-written, highly entertaining and serious-minded take on the end of the world, and it deserves to do well.

 The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is published by Headline Review on 7th August 2012. ISBN 978-0755392599. Hardback, 320pp.

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