In recent years, a slew of post-apocalyptic novels have been published. Most feature zombies or vampires, otherworldly creatures who serve as metaphors for the horror of the unknown. There's a trend among contemporary literary writers to examine what happens when the world we live in is no longer recognizable. Justin Cronin examined this with style in his bestselling novel "The Passage," and Colson Whitehead brought much to the genre with "Zone One," a zombie novel set in New York City. Peter Heller is the latest author to explore a post-apocalyptic world -- but with one key difference. There are no supernatural monsters. The only things to be afraid of in "The Dog Stars" are other humans.
Clearly influenced by Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," "The Dog Stars" is a heart-wrenching and richly written story about loss and survival -- and, more important, about learning to love again. Hig lives in an airport with his dog, Jasper, and an eccentric but lovable neighbor, Bangley. Together they guard and protect their surroundings from intruders. They've been living in this world for nine years, able to survive because of Bangley's expertise with guns and Hig's ability to hunt and fish. In his former life, Hig was a contractor and a poet, but that was before the massive flu that killed his pregnant wife and most of the human race. Hig flies a 1956 Cessna, and the plane is not just a mode of escape but a mode of living:
"And for a time while flying, seeing all this as a hawk would see it, I am myself somehow freed from the sticky details: I am not grief sick nor stiffer in the joints nor ever lonely, nor someone who lives with the nausea of having killed and seems destined to kill again. I am the one who is flying over all of it looking down. Nothing can touch me."
Three years earlier, Hig heard a signal as he was flying over a tower. He decides to explore and see if anyone's out there. It's while he's on this trip that he stumbles across a woman and her hard-scrabbled father. And only after facing death, as the two initially protect themselves from him, does Hig realizes he still wants to live.
"The Dog Stars" is a love story, but not just in the typical sense. It's an ode to friendship between two men, a story of the strong bond between a human and a dog, and a reminder of what is worth living for. As Hig ponders early in the novel: "So I wonder what it is this need to tell. To animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty. Breathe life in the telling."
Michele Filgate is a freelance writer and independent bookseller who lives in Brooklyn. She tweets as @readandbreathe.