Knopf, $24.95, 320 pages, ISBN 978-0-307-95994-2
Woof-woof-woof. There’s an old saw that goes like this: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, that I learned from my mother’s mother when I was just a little boy. Superstitious to the end, “Nanny,” as Grandma O’Toole was called, set store by it and many others like it.
Well . . . without any disrespect to dear old Nanny . . . I’ve gotta say that that’s a whole bunch of hooey. Because, now as a fully-matured hound with gray whiskers about the snout, born on the cutting edge of the Boomer generation in 1946 and a couple of decades older than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; I learn new things all the time. How? By reading of course. This is, after all a book review column. oof-woof, Bow-wow and a little bitty howl . . .
Don’t worry folks; the hyperbole and doggerel stops here.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a post-apocalyptic novel of surprising beauty and tenderness combined with the brutality of the daily struggle for survival in a world without law, civilization or society. It is a world in which ninety-nine percent of the human population has died from a mutated strain of the Asian bird flu and the survivors battle for the remaining goods from an industrial world that no longer exists. Tigers, gray whales, elephants, apes, cheetahs, collared doves, titmice, gray pelicans and every known species of trout are extinct in this sad world, nine years after the flu pandemic. Of the surviving humans, some have contracted an AIDS-like blood disease which eventually kills them. Most of the rest have turned into predators, intent on pillage, rape and plunder.
The rest are survivalists. That’s where we meet Hig, a sad and disillusioned pilot, the protagonist, and Bangley, the hard-core survivalist, who’s keeping Hig alive with a combination of vigilance and brutal realism and sniper skills. They’re holed up in a small airport at Erie, Colorado, a few miles north of Denver.
As Hig flies patrols with his dog, Jasper for company in an antique Cessna, Bangley maintains security at the airport.
In such a bleak forsaken world, Hig retains hope. It is his most human, redeeming quality and the element that illuminates this novel. Hope is the ability to see the beauty of a seed germinating, a hawk on the wing or a mountain stream tumbling over rocks. Hope is what pushes him on, to keep surviving in a nihilistic world bent on destroying all humanity.
As for the old dogs and new tricks, Heller has forged and shaped and hammered and bent the English language in ways that wordsmiths haven’t ever thought of . . . and it works.
It’s enjoyable. But.
Takes a moment to get one’s mental arms around. All in all, a great debut novel from an author with superior talent and a message for all of us. The Dog Stars is getting a lot of positive attention in the literary world. No serious reader should miss it.