Book Review: The Dog Stars

Peter Heller. The Dog Stars: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 336 pages.

You know post-apocalyptic fiction has come a long way when it goes from sci-fi and horror to literary fiction. The Dog Stars is, without a doubt, the most introspective piece of post-apocalyptic writing I’ve read yet. the dog stars

There’s not much plot–it’s mostly the protagonist, Hig, thinking–but it’s still a compelling read. I’m not sure there’s a lot more to be done plot-wise with the “end of the world as we know it but I feel fine” premise, anyway: You’ve got The Stand as an epic good vs evil battle, Earth Abides even before that as an anthropological/ecological perspective, and everything from zombies to hard sci-fi in between. So it’s interesting to see the post-apocalyptic genre go a little up-market (so to speak).

I thought that the writing style–no quotation marks, fragmented sentences–was a great editorial choice. I figure that someone in Hig’s situation is going to be mostly in their own head and no longer “socialized” (in the sense of living in society, not anything political), so it’s natural that he wouldn’t perceive a huge break from his interior monologue to speech. It made me feel disoriented, which I think is why the author was going for. Judging by his extensive portfolio of journalism and nonfiction, I’ve got no doubt he could have turned out something more traditional for his first novel; stylistically, I think he made the right choice here.

I personally hoped that the survivors would do a better job of forming groups, both for self-defense and for obvious benefits: the doctor’s better off if she can reach out to a mechanic for help with her generator, and the mechanic is, clearly, going to be a lot better off as well. But guess what? This wasn’t my book, and I respect what the author was doing here. I found some of the reviews where readers good hung up on the technical minutiae unnerving and funny at the same time: it doesn’t really matter to me which grade of gas will hold up better after ten years of sitting in a tank within the reality of Heller’s novel, since it’s fiction, not a survival guide. I also don’t obsess over how many MPH the Enterprise is doing at Warp 6, because I accept that it’s going to move at the speed of plot. So I wasn’t approaching The Dog Stars as a Lonely Planet guide for how to survive the end of civilization; I wanted to see where the author took the initial premise–the end of the world–and how he made it his own. the world he created wasn’t pretty, but he and Hig made me think quite a bit, which makes this a great novel.

Recommended if you want something a little different from the usual end of the world novel.