Review of “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller or: Zen and the Art of Post-Apocalyptic Survival

This is one of those books that is like an unexpected gift; you know from the moment you open it up that it is going to be something special. It is beautifully meditative and deeply moving, written in the first person as a stream of consciousness. It is also a great choice for National Poetry Month: the constant flow of poetic images juxtaposes the beauty of the prose with the profound sadness of the world coming to and end. You are left with an overwhelming sensation of bittersweet: the longing for what is lost, combined with a microscopic and joyful appreciation of what still is.

dogstars3

Hig, the narrator, 40, lives near one other person, Bruce Bangley, in an abandoned airstrip in Colorado. He still has his dog, Jasper, but in the nine years since a flu pandemic and global warming destroyed most of the world, he hasn’t seen many other living beings. Ten miles away there are some thirty Mennonites with the blood disease that hit after the flu, but they are isolated and probably contagious, so Hig stays distant from them. All other encounters, few though they have been, have been violent confrontations with armed and desperate people willing to kill any others to get their food and provisions.

Hig and Bangley have erected an eight mile “safety perimeter” and Hig takes regular flights in his 1956 Cessna to patrol it. Bangley is cynical and uninterested in anything not related to survival, but Hig is somehow still steeped in memories, still leaking pain, still battling tigers in the night, and still harboring hope. When he sees new vegetation peeping through the blighted timbers below his plane, he yells out to the trees:

“Go Go Go Grow Grow Grow! That’s our fight song. .. The green patches are spreading year by year. Life is tenacious if you give it one little bit of encouragement. I could swear they hear me. They wave back, wave their feathery arms back and forth down low by their sides…”

He contemplates all the species death and muses:

“Still last summer I saw a nighthawk. First one in years. Flitting for bugs in a warm dusk, wingbars blinking in the twilight. That soft electric peep.”

What keeps him going, he wonders? He thinks about how he no longer has many choices, and yet still, even with nothing much to lose, he doesn’t want to lose what he has: “Nothing is something somehow.”

And that is the crux of this story in a nutshell. The will to live. The tenacity of the life force. And the resurgence of life, and beauty, and hope, when all is gone.

Discussion: This book has been compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but it reminded me much more of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Robert Pirsig.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I thought the writing in this book to be far superior, however. ZAMM is a first person description of a cross-country journey on a motorcycle during which time the narrator explores many of the same issues as does Hig: philosophical questions ranging from the relationship of man to machine, to the meaning of life and how to achieve peace of mind, no matter what the circumstances. Even the discussions of the quality of fuel in both books are parallel. But Pirsig is more prosaic; Heller adds magic to the mundane, such as this pithy but poetic reflection by Hig on what he sees when flying his plane:

“…the round bales and scattered cattle and horses as perfect in their patterns as sprays of stars….”

Hig’s relationship to fishing is also reminiscent of the ZAMM author’s loving care he bestows on his bike, and the joy he derives from it. Hig reflects:

“All of this, these motions, the sequence, the quiet, the rill and gulp, the riffle of the stream and the wind soughing the needles of the tall trees. As I strung the rod. I had known it all hundreds, probably now thousands of times. It was ritual that required no thought. Like putting on socks. Except this ritual put me in touch with something that felt very pure. Meaning that in fishing I had always all my life brought the best of myself. My attention and carefulness, my willingness to risk, and my love. Patience. Whatever else was going on. … “

And he describes the carp (trout are long gone in the world):

“They fought without the vigor of a trout but with a sullen reluctance like a mule digging in its heels. They didn’t charge upstream or wrap themselves in the branches of an old deadfall, they simply refused to budge which wasn’t fun, but then there wasn’t much fun anymore and I came to admire their stoicism. A stolid refusal to be yet consumed by the universe.

Like us.”

Finally, much as ZAMM does, you will find yourself contemplating the many questions Heller raises about life and how best to approach it. Having “the end of the world” as a factor adds more urgency and piquancy to the contemplations. What is it, after all, that makes us want to go on living, in spite of pain and loss and adversity? Is it the quest for connection with other human beings and the rewards it brings? One is reminded of E.M. Forster’s famous entreaty:

“Only connect! … Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” – E.M. Forster, Howards End

Is it curiosity? Or is it sheer stubbornness? And then there are the apocalyptic issues: Does terror lead to madness? That is, would a prolonged period of fear and depravation cancel out the civilized veneer of our animal natures? Is civilization even adaptive under such dire circumstances?

Evaluation: I’ve marked way too many passages to quote. It’s all so good: Heller’s right-on description of living with the pain of loss; his adept stream-of-consciousness rendition of reaction to a physical attack; his ability to convey a mood, to conjure up a moment in time, to touch us and haunt us and remind us both of what is worst, and what is best, about humanity. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Note: Very apt background music for this book: “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables:

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14 Responses to Review of “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller or: Zen and the Art of Post-Apocalyptic Survival

  1. I had no idea what this book was about until I read this review. It sounds so different, yet something I think I might enjoy. Glad u liked it Jill.

  2. Charlie says:

    I’m not as interested in Zen as the book by Heller, but this was a really good discussion! Your thoughts of the poetic nature of it gave a really good idea of it too, the way you wrote it was a bit poetic. Best review I’ve read of this yet 🙂

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    Hm, I’ll have to think about this one since I generally don’t enjoy stream of consciousness narratives.

  4. zibilee says:

    I hadn’t heard a lot about this book, but in some ways, it reminds me of certain parts of The Passage. I like the way that it explores that philosophy of life and the way that it deals with the emotions that the survivors feel as they are isolated and far from any normal existence. This is something that I am going to be looking for, and thinking back on it, the reviews I have seen on this one have all been full of praise.

  5. Belle Wong says:

    I think if I liked dystopian and stream of consciousness more, it would definitely be on my to-read list. You make it sound so enticing, though!

  6. Sandy says:

    I am SO not listening to that song. You are working on getting me to cry again! Stop! As far as this book, your review is pretty hard to deny. I just have heard other things too that make me think I should pass. I’m on the fence…

  7. Jenners says:

    Well done!! I listened to this book on audio and took me awhile to get into its rhythms but it was very poetic and lovely and it does make you think about what makes life worth living and all that jazz. I tried the ZAMM a few times in college and just could never get through it.

  8. Beth F says:

    I LOVED this book and ZAMM. Forster? Ugh, no thanks.

    Anyway, I hadn’t really thought of the connection between ZAMM & Dog Stars, but I definitely see what you mean.

  9. I’m so glad to see that you loved this book too! I was surprised to like it as much as I did, considering that it was so… I’m having a hard time coming up with an adequate description… gritty, real, harsh? Yet none of those descriptions encompass the beauty of the text at the same time.

  10. Jenny says:

    Oh hey, my coworker was just reading this book and also said nice things about it. So that makes two recommendations in its favor even if the cover is a bit boring.

  11. Stefanie says:

    This book has been getting buzz but it didn’t seem like it was all that special. now I understand and it sounds great! Looks like there is a waiting list for it at my library but that’s ok 🙂

  12. This is so out of my comfort zone that I really should give it a try!

  13. stacybuckeye says:

    Didn’t I just leave a comment about not wanting to add more books to my wish list? I have ZAMM and have wanted to read it for years. I am (reluctantly) adding this to my wish list because it sounds too good not to.

  14. Ti says:

    I enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would.

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