I'm pretty sure that I had heard of The Dog Stars before the Texas Book Festival, but I didn't have much of an opinion about it until I saw the author, Peter Heller, speak at a session about reading as a writer. He didn't talk all that much about The Dog Stars but did talk about how he got his start in writing, a story that nearly made me cry (there was welling). I'm pretty sure that the moderator did actually cry, as indicated by the sniffly, tissue-muffled moderating that followed. I figured, if this guy can tell a story in a room free of ambience that moves everyone to tears in under five minutes, I should probably buy his book. So I raced to the book tent after the session, bought The Dog Stars, and was fourth on the signing line, ready and waiting for him to arrive. I told him flat out that I'd never read him before but since he made me cry, I was convinced. He laughed and wrote "You will cry here!" on the cover page, which was kind of adorable.
The Dog Stars is post-apocolyptic but not in the way that one usually expects. American civilization (and maybe other parts of the world) has been destroyed by a strain of flu that has left all but a few dead. The survivors are living by their wits and their weapons, scavenging, shooting, and growing food to survive, and killing any strangers who wander into their territory. Hig, the narrator, is haunted by the disappearance of the trout and by the memory of his wife's final moments. He flies a tiny plane to scout for invaders and escape his reality, which includes Bangley, another survivor who arrived one day ten years before with an entire arsenal and has become Hig's only companion other than a group of infected Mennonites that Hig occasionally brings supplies to. One day, Hig sets off in the plane to follow a voice he'd heard on his radio years before, expecting never to return.
This was a pretty quiet novel, considering the state of the world in which it's set and the strength of the weaponry that is necessary for Hig and Bangley's survival. It's sad, but not quite as depressing as one might expect of a story in which there are no prospects for the human race. Towards the end, it becomes hopeful but in a way that feels uncomfortable and a little like grasping at straws. I didn't cry, because I had a little bit of trouble fully engaging with the narrative, though I did identify with Hig, a man who misses books and poetry and mourns the deaths of his enemies. It's hard to explain.
The writing is kind of clever. Hig's narration is unique and understandable - after ten years of seeing hardly anybody but Bangley and the Mennonites who he can't get too close to, his vocabulary has been pared down to the essentials, eliminating a lot of the extra words that we see as necessary but don't always serve much of a purpose (like pronouns and "the"). I think. Or maybe Heller was going for more of a stream of consciousness style, or maybe some combination thereof. Either way, the language is fractured, which made sense but sometimes got a little tiresome. There was a lot of sorting out what the appropriate pronoun would have been, who was saying what, and if anybody was saying anything at all, because there are no quotation marks. It's weird because the language did legitimately add to the portrayal of a man whose life has been cracked and who has been pared down to the essentials, but it became tiresome fast.
I definitely liked it, as I like most books in which characters live off the land, especially since it was combined with elements of post-apocolyptic literature. But I just couldn't love it, even though I really wanted to, because there was constantly this distance between me and the story. I would definitely read more by Heller though - there's a lot here to recommend him.