The Dog Stars: the end of the world as we know it.

The Dog Stars: the end of the world as we know it. (July 30, 2012)

We never seem to lose our appetite for stories about the end of the world. And novelist Peter Heller has written a good one. The Dog Stars reads a little like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road mixed with Mad Max, Contagion, Jack London and issues of Popular Aviation and Field and Stream. The book is set in the not-distant future, after some sort of catastrophic event has basically wiped away American civilization. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel, mixing a bit of horror over what humanity might become in times of extreme privation with a stoic male fantasy about solitude and vast stretches of unpopulated wilderness. Think of it as beach reading for the Armageddon-prepper set.

The problem here, as Hig, the narrator, identifies early on, is that all those mountain streams that once coursed with lovely trout are now not so full of fish. Whatever it is that’s devastated the human population has evidently also killed off much wildlife as well. But Hig has a plane -- the Beast he calls it -- a 1956 Cessna 182, and he’s got access to fuel and a landing strip.

Hig has a devoted old dog named Jasper. And he has a survivalist curmudgeon neighbor named Bangley. It’s handy that Bangley is a weapons nut. So with Hig’s plane and Bangley’s guns the two have set up a little outpost. They’re marooned in the wilderness in what seems to be Colorado.     

Hig can fly a couple hours in any direction and scope out the surroundings and watch for invaders, and there are some fierce ones, which jack up the drama and suspense to action-movie levels in places. He can only travel so far because he must keep enough fuel in the tank for the return trip, and his calculations about how to conduct recon or supply-gathering missions without getting himself stranded add high-stakes adrenalin to just about every outing.

Heller does a masterful job compressing the drama into a few key confrontations, with Hig away on possibly foolhardy solo outings having to learn from Bangley (channeling his violent fend-for-yourself wisdom like that of a Zen warrior) to become a cold-blooded mercenary in order to survive among marauding bands of post-apocalyptic barbarian types. As in McCarthy’s terse novels of violence, Heller does away with quotation marks and lots of other punctuation, making for a bone-dry read, but one that zips along without the weight of clutter. 

When Hig almost gets offed during run-in with some grisly characters when he’s trying to retrieve some old Coca Cola --  a rare treat -- from a delivery truck on an abandoned highway, Bangley, in typically clipped utterances, chastises Hig for not killing the guys right at the start, for being soft and forgiving in a world where morality has gone out the window. “[You were] ready to compromise an important source of caffeine. Not to mention carbonation,” says Bangley. “Not much carbonation in our lives, Hig. Effervescent we are not.”

The Dog Stars is pretty fizzy in its own way. These characters are likable and funny. Will they find other people that aren’t out to kill them or steal their stuff? Will they even survive? Either way they’re living on the edge of a disaster that somehow puts our everyday woes in perspective. And it’s a nice distracting book to read as you wait for the Mayan Apocalypse to kick into gear.