The Dog Stars is one of the best books you’ll read…ever?

10 Jul

dogstarsThe Dog Stars is one of those books that seems ubiquitous. I spent the better part of last year passing it on bookstore tables, seeing it pop up on recommendation lists and idly imagining its contents. What could this slim novel possibly be about. Astronomy? Air travel? Flying puppies?

Well last week I got my answer. After a series of emphatic text messages from a friend—”dog stars is really good. really really good”—I decided to take a breather from my delightfully compelling (but extremely dense) NSA-related nonfiction and dive into TDS. As it turns out, the novel is about—natch—the apocalypse.

TDS is set in the not-so-distant future, about a decade after a plague has wiped out the majority of the population. Concerns about surviving the epidemic have for the most part passed, although a lingering blood disease —called, creepily, The Blood—still affects certain groups of people. (Think of it as surviving a plague, only to contract AIDS.)

Our narrator/protagonist is Hig, a resourceful pilot who lives in an abandoned airplane hanger with his “friend”/fellow survivor Bangley. Their symbiotic relationship involves Hig handling the farming, fishing and hunting, and Bangley handling the firearms. Lots and lots of firearms.

Because you see, in this version of the post-apocalyptic future, people have—morally speaking—taken a turn for the worse. The standing protocol is to kill or be killed, and Hig’s reluctant acquiescence to necessary self-defense is countered by Bangley’s almost enthusiastic embrace of it. Bangley is the muscle; Hig is the heart.

Then there’s Jasper, Hig’s dog. Jasper is in many ways what keeps Hig going—the familiar he needs in a world absent his wife (plague), his unborn child (plague) and everyone he ever knew (plague). Jasper provides the steady, calming presence that only an animal can, and the fact that he also munches on people killed by Hig or Bangley is just another indicator of the moral gray area to which one must acclimate in times of great crisis.

Of course, what makes The Dog Stars special isn’t its plot, which is reminiscent of myriad other books and movies (The Passage, 28 Days Later, The Road, Blindness, The Walking Dead, etc.) What makes it special is the voice: the understated and elegant way in which Hig describes his life, the care he takes to follow a studied routine, the quiet yearning he feels to know what else might be out there. Hig is neither ready for death nor passionate about survival. As he says on page 103: “To multiply the years and divide by the desire to live is a kind of false accounting.”

Hig’s ambivalence—contrasted by Bangley’s devotion to survival and Jasper’s innocent assumption of it—is what makes TDS both poignant and thought-provoking. Because once you’re past all the sickness and death and collapsing of modern civilization, what are you really left with? Needs to fill—water, food, fuel, safety—and time to kill. It’s one thing to survive an apocalypse; figuring out why you bothered is another thing entirely.

Even including Beautiful Ruins, The Dogs Stars is easily the best book I’ve read this year. It’s gripping and suspenseful, while never failing to be beautiful and sad and inspiring. It’s also surprisingly witty. I’m sure it will make for a lovely movie. That I won’t see. Because sometimes just the book is perfect enough.

4papercutsTITLE: The Dog Stars
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AUTHOR: Peter Heller
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PAGES: 320 (in paperback)
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ALSO WROTE: Kook, The Whale Warriors
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SORTA LIKE:  The Age of Miracles meets The Road
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FIRST LINE: “I keep the Beast running, I keep the 100 low lead on tap, I foresee attacks.”

15 Responses to “The Dog Stars is one of the best books you’ll read…ever?”

  1. Christopher Lee Deards July 10, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    That’s about as ringing of an endorsement as one can give. It’s an interesting idea to delve into why one has survived. What’s the point of survival if life on the other side is so much worse?

  2. stevesbookblog July 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    Really well summed up. This is defo going on the to read list!

  3. shreestitaniashaoplavonashishpriyanka July 16, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    That’s an excellent piece of writing…please follow our blog at http://shreestighosh.wordpress.com/ and feel free to leave your views. 🙂

  4. thenovelettesblog July 18, 2013 at 6:28 am #

    Oh my goodness, I am now so excited to read this book. Post-apoc is my favourite genre, and I am always interested to hear of a new book I haven’t heard of yet! I love your blog concept, as well as the graphics! I am now a subscriber. Here’s my new book blog, http://thenovelettesblog.wordpress.com/ I would love to hear your thought on it! xx Kalystia

  5. Mom I'd Like to Follow July 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    ‘Bout to clock out of mommy duty, get to B&N, grab a coffee and a cookie, find an empty chair, and crack this baby open! So excited! 🙂

    • Kira Bindrim July 24, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

      I’m jealous you’re getting to read it for the first time. Enjoy!

      • Mom I'd Like to Follow July 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

        Got to read Chapter 1 so far. His style is unique. Throwing proper sentence structure to the wind. Punctuation be damned. Love it!
        I picture him as Tom Hanks because it reminds me of the jibber-jabber they spoke in Cloud Atlas (did you see that?) and I remember thinking it was cool. Plus Tom Hanks is, like, my fave.
        My favorite line so far (not that it was the best but it made me laugh) was “Melissa was cantaloupes.”
        I can’t wait to read more!
        Btw… What is the etiquette for reading books at a B&N? I always see people reading there, so I was like, ‘me tooo!’ But a manager type kept circling me and asking me how the book was… It made me uncomfortable. Heh.
        Anyway… So far so great!

  6. Kira Bindrim July 25, 2013 at 12:12 am #

    Next time bring disguises.

  7. Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    One nit – Jasper is a Blue Heeler. A Jack Russell terrier is unlikely to survive an apocalypse.

    • Kira Bindrim August 6, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

      Damn, you’re right. And I was so confident he was a Jack Russell! …I think probably based solely on the fact that Jasper sounds like Jack.

  8. luisfazevedo August 8, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    This review made me read it! Thank you! 🙂

  9. frissonsentence September 18, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    I have to agree with you. I’ve read both Beautiful Ruins and The Dog Stars. I like the latter than the former, though I like them both.

  10. Catherine Anderson March 17, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    I am looking for the quote in the dog stars about when people die they are dust that goes to the stars

  11. Blanca Rodríguez August 9, 2014 at 4:01 am #

    Excellent review. I’m currently translating the book into Spanish and it has turned me inside out in the process.

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