This review is also posted at Goodreads. After I wrote it, I thought of James Howard Kunstler's A World Made by Hand, which has a more nuanced and less binary portrayal of the varieties of human experience after society breaks down.
I don't usually review books that have been reviewed to death. Better to
find a worthy, unseen work and lift it up. But I'm making an exception
for Peter Heller's The Dog Stars because I haven't seen a review yet that tapped into the thread it opened up for me.
Like Heller's main character Hig, flying over a flu-wasted Colorado looking for someone to connect with, I tried to find a review that spoke to this passage:
Still we are divided, there are cracks in the union. Over principle. His: Guilty until—until nothing. Shoot first ask later. Guilty, then dead. Versus what? Mine: Let a visitor live a minute longer until they prove themselves to be human? Because they always do. What Bangley said in the beginning: Never ever negotiate. You are negotiating with your own death.
The reviews I've read are enamored with the Mad Max/The Road comparisons with the novel's hopeful endcap to the apocalypse. Or distracted by syntax. Fragments. No punctuation. Sex wands exploding. (Well, Hig hadn't had sex for nine years, so perhaps its rediscovery might be like a Harlequin Romance, but I digress.)
Don't get me wrong. The Dog Stars is a read-it-in-one-or-two-sittings novel, but unlike Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this one never brought me to tears. Instead, it made me wonder: Why are so many readers responding to its "hopefulness" or its poetic treatment of a world in both decline and regeneration instead of to the assumption that, even for the sensitive and "weak" HIg, there were so many Others who could simply be blown away because... well, because they weren't Hig.
At another point, Hig says: "The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice."
Desperate souls whose survival was foiled by HIg and his pal Bangley might be forgiven for thinking the same of the sensitive aviator-poet. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he ain't.
Most of the other humans portrayed in the story are ciphers or caricatures worthy of one of those shooting arcade games the NRA fears is eroding our values. They threaten, they die. A little or a lot. But prove themselves human? Not a chance.
This is a serious book by a serious writer, and Heller has clearly posed this divide between two world views that are severely tested by the apocalypse. But there isn't much follow through, and there's even less by the admirers of the book.
I'm wondering if Heller is trying to make a commentary on how we are living today—not about the future or some idealized humanity.
Hig's partner Bangley and another character he meets after he takes his fool's flight west are both ex-special forces, hardened men who do not make the fine distinctions that will get Hig killed. In fact, they are portrayed as the soldiers and Navy Seals protecting us today, projected into a dystopian future.
Although America has not been wiped out by a virus, we are protected by similar men and similar values today. We have the luxury of our poetry and hammock sex and contemplative fly fishing because the Bangleys of the world have our backs.
In the real world, that is certainly the view of the Bangleys. The Higs of us who "believe in the possibility of connectedness" would not survive without the ruthlessness and killing skills of hard men.
Because Hig finds love and there is new greenery sprouting in the killed forests, we are encouraged to believe there is hope. That the apocalypse isn't so bad. That the end isn't the end.
Arabs, of all people, appear to be patrolling American skies. Is that an ironic footnote or a reminder that we have so much capacity to be wrong about Others?
It's not Heller's job to spell it out for us. And thank goodness, in his restraint, he didn't. But what about us readers?
Are we doing our job?