Hig is living every Coloradan’s dream. He sleeps outside at night at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, creating constellations in the stars with the company of his loving dog, Jasper. Only Hig isn’t camping.
He is one of the few survivors of a flu epidemic that wiped out most of the population. Now the trees have been killed by pine beetles, the trout have all vanished downstream, and Hig is left with one friend, the trigger happy Bangley. At a distance is a small colony of Mennonites with a highly contagious blood disease that developed after the flu, and they are Hig and Bangley’s only company. Bangley and Hig stick together because they are able to help keep each other alive.
Hig flies a small plane that allows him to check an eight-mile perimeter, and it’s Bangley’s job to shoot anyone within it. The world is no longer a place for Mr. Nice Guy, and the attitude is shoot first, ask questions later.
Despite the set up of the novel, The Dog Stars takes on a different approach to the post-apocalypse story. While Hig begins in an isolated and hopeless world, he gradually encounters more signs of civilization. At its heart, this is a novel about human connection and resilience.
After Hig looses his dog, Jasper, a heartbreaking moment for any dog lover, he feels the need to get out and explore Colorado, even if it means he won’t have enough fuel to make it back home. Bangley urges him to stay, explaining that Hig’s leaving will kill them both, but Hig breaks away from everything he knows and ventures to Grand Junction, a place he had discovered a radio signal from three years earlier. On his way there, he finds a father and his grown daughter living in a canyon. Unable to resist the temptation to make connection, Hig (narrowly) avoids being shot, and eventually gains the trust of the pair. Hig and the daughter, Cima, develop a close, personal relationship, revealing details from their pasts that demonstrate how quickly the world and humanity has changed.
The three leave together, and after many trials and tribulations, eventually find themselves back to Hig’s original home. They rescue Bangley who has been badly injured, and it turns out that three friends are better than one. The four of them begin to form a new type of family. Cima often visits the Mennonites with the hope of healing them, and the sight a planes overhead becomes more and more frequent.
While the first person point of view the story is told in is choppy and a little difficult to get used to, it helps create a full picture of the world Hig lives in. His voice is as bare as the world around him. The plot is interesting and consistently full of danger. On occasion, it feels as though the author has jumped a few steps in the human psyche, explaining the prolific violence away with the notion that this is just what humans would do. He manages to get away with it because of popular culture and much bleaker apocalypse novelists who have come before him such as Cormac McCarthy, and he more than makes up for the gaps with Hig’s slow climb back from the kill or be killed mentality. Overall, this is a fast paced read that takes an interesting and hopeful twist on the end of the world.
Peter Heller is a Colorado native and sets his novel in various locations throughout Colorado including Denver, Grand Junction, and Erie. It’s morbidly fun to imagine these well-known locations with apocalypse makeovers.