How does the world end? According to nonfiction veteran Peter Heller in his dystopian and elegiac debut novel, “The Dog Stars,’’ it ends with a cough and a fever. We learn of this from Heller’s narrator, a small-craft pilot known as Hig, who has lost his wife to a global flu epidemic that has wiped out most of the US population.
Hig has set up shop at a rural Colorado airport, alone except for his beloved dog, Jasper, and Bangley, an irascible former Navy SEAL who lives on the other side of the tarmac from him. With Jasper in the copilot’s chair, Hig flies over the countryside and forages for fuel and large stashes of supplies. With Jasper running point, he also hunts and fishes for food.
While Jasper offers help and companionship, Bangley also proves an irreplaceable and trusted ally. There is, for instance, the time Bangley covers his back as the two dispatch a half-dozen marauders who attempt to overrun their airfield at night. And when Hig finds himself tracked by a band of attackers upon returning from a deer hunt in the nearby foothills of the Rockies, Bangley comes to the rescue with a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher.
Hig narrates these violent events in short distinctive bursts of paragraphs reminiscent of a journal but filled with the urgency of present events. But lest you think this book is only about physical survival let me assure you that Hig finds himself nearly overrun by memories of life before the epidemic, mainly his love for his late wife, whom he, at her pleading behest, dispatched in her hospital bed with a pillow — memories no weapon can defend against.
Clearly, Hig finds that keeping his soul alive after the lamentable past takes a major effort on his part. A good fishing trip in the foothills of the mountains with Jasper at his side helps refurbish his soul. Flying in his ancient Cessna lifts him, too, renewing a sense of beauty and imagination, as when he sees the way “the earth below resolves” and the way “the landscape falls into place around the drainages, the capillaries and arteries of falling water . . . the low places defining the spurs and ridges and foothills the way creases define the planes of a face.”
It is only after Hig takes a sabbatical from the defensive life at the airfield and flies west over the mountains looking for he knows not what does he find something that may elevate his life above his current one in which “[n]othing is something somehow.” A chance view of activity in a lost valley draws his curiosity and after he touches down in a risky landing everything changes for him. More deaths lie ahead but for the first time since the end of civilization as we know it so does a new and rejuvenating way of life.
The story of which I don’t want to spoil even one smidgen for you. Except to say that an elegy for a lost world turns suddenly into a paean to new possibilities. In “The Dog Stars,’’ Peter Heller serves up an insightful account of physical, mental, and spiritual survival unfolded in dramatic and often lyrical prose, a difficult tale in which unexpected hope persistently flickers amid darkness.Alan Cheuse is the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” His latest work of fiction is a trio of novellas titled “Paradise.’’
He can be reached at acheuse