Post-Apocalyptic Survival in ‘The Dog Stars’
Our environmental discussions usually address the loss of glaciers, indigenous tribes and languages and endangered animals’ natural habitat. However, the world of pop culture is embracing the notion that the apocalypse is imminent and it is no longer a question of when, but how.
This has created an entire new genre of novels and films such as 28 Days Later, Mad Max and I Am Legend. This developing realistic post-apocalyptic genre diverts attention from the past science-fiction like alien invasion tracks and envisions what the world may look like if plagued by biological warfare or continued global warming.
In The Dog Stars, the omniscient narrator, Hig, describes what it is like to inhabit a world void of humanity after a lethal flu epidemic wipes out 99% of the human species. The Coloradan author, Peter Heller, conveys the message that in a world where you have lost everything you have ever loved and known, there is the possibility of mental, physical and spiritual perpetuation.
Heller dares to entertain the thought that there can still be beauty to be found in a world where the only other humans left are out to loot and kill one another. Big Hig’s stream of consciousness is embedded throughout the novel holding us victim to the raw thoughts of a lonely man living in a rapidly warming, natural resource-stripped, post-apocalyptic planet.
The story takes place nine years after Hig loses his wife, child and home. Both his wife and child fell victim to the fast spreading flu like symptoms that could have been a result of exposure to asbestos or something similarly as rampant as SARS or the “bird flu.” However, as it spread throughout the country, and the death tolls rose, little thought was given to the cause as everyone fought to stay alive.
His unintentional survival partner and only living neighbor not affected by the disease, Bangley, is a rough and despondent man with a large gun collection. When the story begins, there is little backstory of how the men both happened to be in the Erie, Colorado airport hangar together. It highlights the destitute area and the deadened environment that surrounds their bunker style property.
Bruce Bangley is clearly not the man whose company Hig would have sought but he is the most resourceful element he has in his life, next to his 1956 Cessna. Bangley’s antagonistic character is the ideal complement to Hig’s gentle nature. Bangley is the authoritative voice of reason in the face of violence that Hig would never be able to be for himself. The perfect counterpart to Hig’s inner dialogue is Bangley’s intruding voice persuading him to be more ruthless to stay alive. Those inner dialogues keep Hig alive when he is overwhelmed and unable to think for himself due to anxiety and fear.
The use of crude language and prickly natured imagery allows one to almost smell the oil and gunpowder that appear to be the ingredients that make up the man that is Bruce Bangley, the only human available for regular conversation, Hig often found himself preferring to converse with his dog, Jasper. With his dog at his side, numerous of the dramatic scenes in the book describe Hig’s reliance on his own mind over matter approach that enables him to survive in such a harsh world. Any person who has ever felt being stalked by an animal while alone in the woods can relate to whether to allow oneself to be the prey or a survivor. Hig develops a type of mental fitness when he repeatedly faces adversity and turmoil which is very different from the middle class white male mindset that he displayed prior to the onset of the lethal flu epidemic.
Hig’s understanding for the need to find beauty in a world where the odds are against him is what may have given him the additional mental strength needed to survive. There are numerous examples in our society that loneliness can drive a person clinically insane as in cases of solitary confinement. An inmate may be visited by a guard on a regular basis but when left alone for a majority of the day loneliness sets in and can lead to derangement.
His poetic voice is haunting when describing places that Coloradans knew as home, now burned and taken over by grasses in the absence of humans. The writing style is void of any consideration for grammar or proper punctuation. He worm holes his way into your inner thoughts until you are reading the pages in his own mind’s cadence.
For instance when he is injured, “All the pieces. Hands claw back over ground. What? To head. Intact head intact. Ears ringing. Roll onto side, sleeve to nose, bleeding, not bad. Spit. Eyes. Clear eyes, blunt fingers, breathe. Intact… Okay to knees. Stay there a while maybe a week. Hands and knees. Blood from nose dripping to dirt can see it, that’s good, a good sign. Hands and knees breathe. Breathe. Okay I’m okay.”
Many of the main character’s most tender moments are when interacting with the natural world or reflecting on nature’s gifts. Through his connection with nature, he is able to find peace in a still and quiet world. His interactions with his surrounding environment provide mental relief, along with nutrients and food. His wordsmithing tells of once living a life where he had always sought out the quiet moments now to be deafeningly surrounded by them.
Hig recognizes the three joys he shares with Bangley at the airport, gardening, cooking and flying his Cessna, the keys to a potential reconciliation which will enable him to restore his connection with being human and the ability to feel joy. His communion with nature through gardening and hunting are the most influential and positive pursuits in his daily life.
Heller is appealing to a certain type of audience who engage in litigation, are avid protesters and romanticize endangered breeds and engage in saving wildlands, grasslands and habitats from disappearing under asphalt. The book has many references to the trout disappearing from every river on the planet, due to continuous years of the warming temperatures on Earth.
Most can relate to the change that occurs when communing with the natural world as Hig felt while recreating, “except this ritual put me in touch with something that felt very pure. Meaning that in fishing I had always experienced the best of myself. My attention and carefulness, my willingness to risk, and my love. Patience.”
The theme throughout the book might have been described as science fiction at one time. As we come to face the cruel reality of an anthropogenic warming climate, the possibility of living in a lethal flu stricken world where treasured species are dying before our eyes is closer than ever before. Hig’s character enables us to realize that we have the ability to not only survive in such a world, but we can also thrive with a relative amount of emotional stability.
The Dog Stars is a true Lonely Planet survival guide written in the stream of consciousness. Heller opportunistically found a niche in the heart of his readers, fulfilling the desire to explore what the Earth may be like to inhabit in 50 years and acknowledging that it may be bearable to survive. There is a prospect for love, beauty and peace amidst the life of survival if you allow the space for it.