by John Atcheson
The Dog Stars, a debut novel by Peter Heller, succeeds on so many levels it’s almost frightening.
It is a piece of literary fiction that is likely to be a best seller.
It is a dystopic future tale that is nevertheless full of beauty.
It is a moving novel that illustrates the horror of climate change, without ever mentioning climate change.
Heller paints a grim picture of the world we are even now sculpting, populates it with people who are desperately violent or violently desperate, but leavens it with a triumph of the human spirit in the form of Hig, one of the most endearing and unlikely heroes to show up in fiction in a long time.
Hig, a pilot, lives in an abandoned airport in what appears to be an armed truce with his companion of nine years, a tough survivalist who refers to himself only as Bangley. Their relationship seems, at first, strictly one of convenience. Each contributes to the survivability of the other. Bangley tackles the job of killing marauders with verve; Hig does so with reluctance. He wants to believe in people, but it is a world which punishes people who do.
It is set sometime near the middle of this century. The natural world is in the process of being devastated by climate change and much of the world’s population has been killed by a pandemic. Nine years have passed since Hig lost his wife, since the world crumpled into this chaos.
It is certainly one of the better novels addressing climate change out there, but as noted, it doesn’t once use the words climate change or global warming. And therein lies its strength. It reveals this new world without lecture, rancor or melodrama, and it does so through the eyes of a character we care about. As a result, we aren’t beaten over the head with a message; we are exposed to a dramatic tragedy, which, as Whitehead put it, “… resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.”
At the end of the day, fiction must stand on story, character and damn good writing to succeed. When it does, it reaches us on a visceral level, and it can be a powerful way to move us.
Heller, an award winning writer for Outdoor Magazine, succeeds on all three levels in his first foray into fiction.
Too many of us, writing novels that include climate change as part of the story allow the facts to compromise the fiction. Even great writers such as Ian McEwan fall into this trap. I recently published an eco-thriller centered on global warming, part of a trilogy – and I definitely wrestled with this issue. Still do.
Heller doesn’t. He transcends it. Yet no one reading this book could fail to be moved by it, and by the future Hig lives in.
One word of caution. Heller’s prose is not conventional. It is reminiscent of Cormack McCarthy’s writing in Blood Meridian or perhaps The Road, a Pulitzer Prize winning book Dog Stars has been compared to. Stark. Clipped sentences. Non-sentences. No quotation marks. But …
As Robert Penn Warren said of McCarthy, Heller’s writing “… has, line by line, the stab of actuality.” This kind of fiction must be done well to succeed and avoid the trap of being merely pretentious. Heller succeeds.
Jasper, Hig’s faithful dog and copilot, is one of the best canine characters since Enzo In the Art of Racing in the Rain, and it is Jasper’s death that launches Hig on what could be a one-way journey into the unknown that ultimately redeems his belief in a life with love, friendship and hope.
The past – our present — is as much a part of this book as is the hellish future Hig lives in, and Heller creates it seamlessly; indeed, Hig’s wife and his pre-apocalyptic life are evoked poignantly, and they seem as alive to the reader as they are for Hig. Once again, Heller manages this without resorting to melodrama or cheap emotional appeals.
It’s difficult to give this book its due without going into the plot in more detail, but that pleasure should be left to the reader, without some reviewer imposing his views or otherwise spoiling it. Better to let it unfold, the way all great stories must.
Heller’s restraint and discipline are the stuff or great literature, and his mastery of story is the stuff of great reads. That is why this book should do well now, and be read long into the future, as a classic.
Provided we leave ourselves a future in which we have the luxury of books.
Dog Stars. Buy it. Read it. Pass it on.
John Atcheson has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks. He recently published his own novel, A Being Darkly Wise, the first book of a trilogy chronicling a small band’s attempt to save some part of the world as it unravels in the face of the great warming.