“It caught me sometimes: that this was okay. Just this. That simple beauty was still bearable barely, and that if I lived moment to moment, garden to stove to the simple act of flying, I could have peace.” – The Dog Stars, Peter Heller
My original intent was not to read this book. Peter Heller has a new novel out, called The Painter, that caught my attention. But having not read this author before, I decided I should read an older novel. I guess I just wanted to build a small foundation of the writer before delving into his latest published work, which is supposed to be pretty dark.
From the first page of the story, I was engaged in this novel. It’s written in a quick staccato, like a paintball gun full of words being shot at the page and… splat. There’s the first paragraph, break. Then here comes the next one.
The story is set in Colorado, at a lonely airport, after a flu pandemic wiped out the majority of humans on the planet. By some mutation some humans had immunity, and now roving packs of survivors do what they can to stay alive, but it’s a dog eat dog world, and no one can really be trusted. But at the abandoned airport live two men, Hig and Bangley, along with Hig’s old dog Jasper. Hig, an amateur pilot, still has his plane, and with a supply of fuel at the airport is able to make scouting trips to watch for invaders and keep their territory safe.
But suddenly on on flight, he picks up a radio transmission from Grand Junction. Which eventually leads him past his “point of no return” (the point where he won’t have enough fuel to turn around and get home) to search for the origination of the transmission.
Although the basis of this book is essentially a post-apocalyptic America, it’s written in such a way that it’s easy to picture yourself there, with Hig, Bangley, and Jasper, working on your garden, and considering warm Coke one of the best treats in the whole world.
The bigger theme running through this book is loss, and how we deal with it as humans. The overwhelming grief, the guilt of feeling a glint of happiness in the face of it, and the eventuality of letting go. There were some moments in this book that were so poignant, so gut-wrenching, that I cried. I rarely cry at books. I suppose part of it was being able to relate to the sadness of the loss, but a larger piece was the way the author was able to portray Hig’s feelings. You, as the reader, are dragged down right into the darkness and despair Hig is dealing with.
It’s a rough ride, but so beautiful when you come out on the other side it’s worth it. And as low as you’re forced to go, there are moments of elation, love, and connection that make this story one of the best I’ve read in quite a while.