Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: The Dogs Stars by Peter Heller

I'm about six weeks removed from my reading of this book, and already it is as a distant memory for me, but I couldn't let the pub date come and go without saying something about Peter Heller's The Dog Stars.

This is the best book of the 20 or so that I read on vacation this year.  What's more, it may be the best book I've read this year.  What's even more, it just may be the best book I'll read in any year.

If you're reading this blog, you've probably already heard something about this book already--either because you're a customer and you've already heard me raving about it, or because you're a book person and you've heard the buzz surrounding this novel.  Which means what you probably know is that it's another post-apocalyptic vision of the world.  What you probably don't know is that it is also a beautiful one.

This may be a debut novel, but Peter Heller is no stranger when it comes to writing prose.  I don't think it's possible to produce a book like this one first time out of the gate.  His background in travel and adventure writing becomes clear once you settle into Dog Stars, but it's the prose itself that sets this book apart: strong, experimental, truncated, but with a stream-of-consciousness aspect to it.

This is the story of Hig, a one percenter.  Except in this case, he's one percent of the surviving population after a terrible flu has wiped out most of the population, and a mysterious blood disease has wiped out most of the flu survivors. He lives in a state of uneasy alliance with military-hardened Bangley, a "Survivor with a capital S," at a small, abandoned municipal airport.  With Hig's Cessna and a dog named Jasper, they create a perimeter than can be defended and protected against the marauding, near-feral almost-humans who occasionally cross their paths.

It's an uneasy alliance, but a successful one, until one day Hig hears another voice on the Cessna's radio, broadcasting from a place well beyond his gas tank's point of no return, and it's that voice that starts to haunt Hig's waking and dreaming moments: are there other pockets of other people out there like him, people who have maintained their humanity, but more importantly, their hope?

I won't say more than that, other than the rest of the book is dedicated to that search, but also to the preservation of that hope. Reading this book is a singularly satisfying experience, and one that drew me in deeply and was slow to let me go.  I laughed and I cried, and my pulse was pounding, often within the same chapter, and my husband tells me that all it took was watching me read the book to make him want to, too: he could hear my sniffles and my laughs, he observed all of my white-knuckled moments, my dog-eared pages, my deep sighs, and my blank looks when I stared, unseeing, out at the point where the ocean meets the horizon when the book became too much to take in.

Believe me when I say this book is a helluva read.

I'll conclude with a few excerpted passages and then the book trailer (sorry for the poor formatting--I don't know how to make it smaller).  I read this book in ARC form, but it was published this week by Knopf. Seriously, will you please just read this?

"Bangley never drank because it was part of his Code. I'm not sure if he thought of himself as a soldier or even a warrior, but he was a Survivor with a capital S. All the other, what he had been in the rigors of his youth, I think he thought of as training for something more elemental and more pure. He had been waiting for the End all his life. If he drank before he didn't drink now he didn't do anything that wasn't aimed at surviving. I think if he somehow died of something that he didn't deem a legitimate Natural Cause, and if he had a moment of reflection before the dark, he would be less disappointed with his life being over than with losing the game. With not taking care of the details. With being outsmarted by death, or worse, some other holocaust hardened mendicant (70)."

"I could almost imagine that it was before, that Jasper and I were off somewhere on an extended sojourn and would come back one day soon, that all would come back to me, that we were not living in the wake of disaster. Had not lost everything but our lives....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 (67)."

"Jasper used to be able to jump up into the cockpit now he can't. In the fourth year we had an argument. i took out the front passenger seat for weight and cargo and put down a flannel sleeping bag with a pattern of a man shooting a pheasant over and over, his dog on three legs, pointing out in front...I carried him. Lay him on the pattern of the man and the dog.

You and me in another life I tell him....

He's getting old. I don't count the years. I don't multiply by seven.

They breed dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn't they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man (23, 24, 25)."

Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is a selection for the Odyssey Bookshop's signed First Editions Club.  He'll be reading at our store on Friday, September 28, and we couldn't be more excited!


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