Upon being recommended Peter Heller’s debut novel The Dog Stars – and I am about to strongly, strongly recommend it to you – you might first think that it’s merely an additional helping of a story you already know: a smoky, gutted post-apocalyptic Denver nine years after an unidentified flu wipes out the population, leaving only our pilot narrator Hig to describe the life he’s carved out for himself. The elements are all familiar ones to the current literary trends: unexplainable global disruptions à la The Age of Miracles, the decimation of populations à la Zone One, mysterious and beckoning radio signals à la The Flame Alphabet, and the general, morality-shattering desperation that The Hunger Games trilogy conveys. It’s all there, just as we want it to be, since these elements demonstrate what makes post-apocalypse stories such good reads: the reset button has been hit. We are reverted versions of ourselves. And if Peter Heller’s book stopped there, it’d still be a riveting read, albeit one whose blanks we already know how to fill.
But Heller doesn’t settle for a system of blanks, a pick-your-disaster type of read that lesser authors have rushed to capitalize on. In fact, the bleak and deserted backdrop surrounding Hig in The Dog Stars serves as just that, a backdrop, to allow for our pilot’s serious and uninterrupted inner monologue about what it is to lose someone. Or no, not so neatly: Hig is faced with losing not someone but everyone, and not just moving on but having nothing left in the world to move on to, no distraction from the painful parts of the world but to survive them. In this respect, his sole neighbor Bangley serves as a welcome distraction, and Heller is careful to balance Bangley’s cartoonish tough-guy-ness with a calculatingly distant approach to Hig – an approach that the reader almost reflexively shares, since the vernacular of Hig’s narration takes some time to pick apart: