Hig’s world is a lonely one. After the flu that killed his wife went on to take the lives of 99.9% of America, he lives with his dog in an abandoned airport. His only neighbour is Bangley, a man with a passion for firearms and no qualm about killing. They form an unlikely alliance; Hig with his plane for surveillance and Bangley with his guns.

Nothing. Nothing the whole way. Roads empty. Blessedly. Usually are. Had there been wanderers it would have fucked up everything, delayed our hunt. Then I would have swooped, cut the engine, played the tape. I have four songs on the CD rigged to the amp and the speakers: they are titled
Turn Back North or Die
Turn Back South or Die
Turn Back East or Die
Turn Back West or Die

If I had read any reviews of The Dog Stars in advance, I probably would have run away from this book. The speech is without speech marks and mostly unattributed. The prose borders on poetry in places, with short, incomplete sentences. Written by a specialist adventure writer, one character loves his fishing and his plane; the other is a gun-toting, all American male. Their world is pretty bleak and their existence consists of killing people that come too close and making sure they have food to eat.

Yet beyond all that appeared a book I fell in love with. The fractured prose suits their world. When living is isolation, is there need for formal grammar? It also mimics the train of thought of someone by themselves, every so often blurring into speech, when Hig isn’t even aware that he is talking out loud. So even the lack of speech marks work for me (and usually I find this difficult).

They bred dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn’t they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man?

The characters of Hig and Bangley are also joined by Jasper the dog, and it is the relationship between man and dog that starts pulling at the heart-strings. Jasper is truly man’s best friend in this case. The fact that Bangley is such an inaccessible character to start with, makes it all the more touching when the emotion slips through. That in extreme situations, little things like compatibility don’t matter and new family bonds are forged. A need for human connections overrides everything else. I found it touching and moving throughout, you just have to give the style a little time to settle in.

I even started to get interested in the plane and the crucial part it plays in the story. Without it, they would have been truly isolated. Instead it gives them freedom to forage further and to keep their land safe. The violence in the world may be a pessimistic outlook but it is also probably a realistic one. It also gives the edge of suspense and keeps the pace up where otherwise it might drag. After all, the moment when I thought the book may be starting to flag was one of the few times that Hig wasn’t in danger of being shot at.

There are small passages about the flu and the blood disease that followed. Hig befriends a community of Mennonites with the blood disease in a nearby property (reached by plane) but never gets close. There is a not too subtle comparison between misconceptions about HIV and this new disease that was born out of the flu. But the story isn’t really about the apocalypse; it’s about day-to-day survival in the world that remains. Part of that survival is the struggle to be social when in competition. When it’s easy to become animals, it’s love that keeps humanity alive.

The Dog Stars is Peter Heller’s first work of fiction and is published by Headline in hardback and ebook formats. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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