I’ve read my fair share of post-apocalyptic novels: Alas, Babylon; One Second After; The Passage. Apparently, I have a bit of a dark curiosity for what will happen in the days, weeks, months, and years after all hell breaks loose. So when The Dog Stars (Knopf, 2012) landed on my desk eight weeks ago, it was a natural fit for my nightstand. That the novel was written by Peter Heller, a Coloradan (and former 5280 freelancer), about post-doomsday Colorado made me start reading it that very night.
As a fellow writer, the first thing I noticed about the book was Heller’s unusual use of punctuation and his main character’s stream-of-consciousness way of speaking, both of which tripped me up for the first 10 to 15 pages. Soon after, though, my brain settled into Heller’s rhythm—and my mind began to latch onto a guy named Hig and his dog, Jasper.
The Dog Stars is set along Colorado’s Front Range, somewhere near Longmont. A flu epidemic—and a subsequent blood disorder—has killed nearly everyone, including Hig’s wife. A pilot by training, Hig finds safety from disease and the resulting civil discord in a deserted country airport. His only company beyond Jasper is a gung-ho militant named Bangley, who serves as their uncompassionate—and deadly—protector. Hig, Bangley, and Jasper live in relatively undisturbed isolation and, for a post-apocalyptic era, they do pretty well.
The novel begins nearly a decade after the flu has passed, which means, unlike other books of its genre, that The Dog Stars avoids the grisly details. In more than a few areas, though, the story sidesteps some seemingly pertinent details, too. Heller underplays information about why and how Hig and Bangley—and a host of other characters—either avoided the killer illness or survived it. He either purposefully excludes exactly what the flu was and where it came from—or he just didn’t think readers would want to know. Heller also doesn’t fully explain why the climate has changed to take with it the world’s animals—tigers, elephants, apes, cheetahs, pelicans, whales—as well as Hig’s beloved Colorado stream trout. Is it somehow related to the epidemic? Is it just another run of bad luck? It's hard to tell.
These mildly distracting omissions are just that: minor. They only briefly break the reader’s concentration, which is otherwise trained on what is a gentler, kinder end-of-days novel that explores themes of friendship, dependency, hope, and, maybe most important, finding a reason to live when death seems like the easier option.
The Dog Stars isn’t the most realistic-seeming novel of its kind—One Second After is a terrifying read if you’re looking for that. And it probably won’t garner accolades like Alas, Babylon. But it’s a sweet story—it’ll alternatively make you smile and cry—that Coloradans in particular will likely enjoy.