The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller / *****

41gu1e0i18lPost-apocalypse stories have come in and out of fashion over the years, but it’s hard to think of a more popular one that’s gained as much traction as The Walking Dead. (I know this seems like a tangent, but bear with me.) And with my love of horror, people always get a bit surprised when I told them that I quit The Walking Dead about two seasons in, and never regretted it for a moment. The reason, though, is simple: I realized early on that, as was evidenced in both Kirkman’s source material and the TV series, the series was little more than “misery porn,” devoted to breaking its characters and rubbing our faces in the worst of humanity. And look – I’m a horror junkie. I’ve seen some twisted films, met some insane villains. But the thing about horror novels and films is that they’re finite; they tell a story, and then they end. Meanwhile, I realized that The Walking Dead was intended to be unending, which meant that it would just be a constant succession of horrors, all constantly trying to outdo the last, leaving the viewer in an arms race of misery and horror. And honestly, that’s the last thing I need in my life.

So what, you’re asking, does any of that have to do with The Dog Stars?

Like The Walking DeadThe Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic story, although one without zombies. No, this is closer to Stephen King’s The Stand, where a disease has wiped out much of the population of the planet. And as you’d imagine, survival has become difficult. Luckily, Heller’s protagonist – a pilot named Hig – has teamed up with a survivalist named Bingley, the sort of person who spent his entire life planning for just something like this, and knows exactly what he needs to do. Bingley is the sort of person who would thrive in Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse: he’s careful, thoughtful, proactive, shoots first and asks questions later. He’s armed to the teeth, self-sufficient, and trusts no one but Hig – and even that is only because the two men can help each other.

But here’s what separates The Dog Stars from The Walking Dead, and why I loved it so much: this isn’t Bingley’s story. Instead, it’s Hig’s…and Hig doesn’t want to live in the same world that Bingley does. I don’t mean that he’s suicidal, although you could forgive him for being so; it won’t take long for you to realize how much Hig lost when the world fell apart, and to say that he doesn’t exactly love Bingley is an understatement. (He does have his dog, though, and it’s not hard to see his dog as the band-aid that he’s using to cope with things – something Hig himself admits as well.)

No, what I mean is that Hig fundamentally can’t – and doesn’t want to – be Bingley. He’s an optimist at heart, someone who wants to help people, who hopes that Bingley’s armaments and defenses are for naught, that you can trust the people you meet. That’s not to say that Hig is an idiot or naive. He’s not, and Heller makes that distinction clear quickly. But he’s not a bleak survivalist, either; he wants to give the world a chance, to do more than just survive and stay alive – he wants to find something more to live for than just living for its own sake.

And if that was all The Dog Stars was – the conflict between Bingley and Hig to see which point of view was right – that, in of itself, could be fascinating. But it doesn’t take long for us to begin to see that Heller has more on his mind, as Hig shows himself capable of ruthless behavior, and Bingley becomes more than just a violent boor. And that takes Heller’s world up a notch, as we embrace both the complexity of their new lives and the nuances of their character…and just when we have a handle on that, a lot of things change, and the book evolves into something else again.

I don’t love the way The Dog Stars is written – the conceit is that Hig suffered from a massive fever that damaged his brain a little, and his writing can be a little unfocused as a result – and for a bit, I wasn’t keen on continuing. But as I went, and got more used to Hig’s voice, I started warming to the book, which may end up being the warmest, most hopeful apocalypse book I’ve read in some time. Make no mistake: The Dog Stars never gets absurdly cheery or strains credulity, but it also tries to find a place for hope, human connections, and kindness, even in the face of massive destruction. And it’s hard not to love a book that does that, especially when so much fiction defaults nowadays to bleakness and grim outcomes. (Again, I don’t mind it in some books; what I mind is the ubiquity of it.) More than that, though, The Dog Stars works because it lets its characters live and breathe, defying easy categorization and summary. It’s not a book that gives us easy heroes or villains; sure, some of us (particularly in these politicized times) might be closer to the hopefulness and generosity of Hig, while others are the stern, safe Bingley…but maybe there’s something necessary in each of us. And that’s a nice message to find in a book, even before it creates a rich world, interesting characters, and tells a great story.

I can’t recommend this one enough; yes, you may think you’re tired of post-apocalyptic tales, but maybe that’s because you haven’t read one that looks at the apocalypse as less of an ending, and more of a chance for a second start.




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