Piloting the Apocalypse
Peter Heller navigates a grim future in The Dog Stars
The Dog StarsPeter Heller
(Knopf · hardcover · $24.95)
The future is miserable in the pages of post-apocalyptic fiction. The Dog Stars, author Peter Heller's scenario of what nightmares may come, is no exception. Heller's vision is utterly terrible; that grinding-monotony-of-loneliness-punctuated-with-violence kind of terrible.
Why isn't the future ever, I don't know, totally awesome? I'd like to see that for once—a novel called Hey, It Worked Out After All. Your Jet Pack Is Ready for Pickup.
In Heller's chilling tale, many of the birds and fish are gone, but the end of the known world does wonders for the wolf population. Predators in general fare well.
Our protagonist Hig misses his wife, books and life like it was. Being a trained pilot, he flies to Denver from a rural Colorado airport to pick up a collection of poetry. In the process, he shoots two people trying to steal his plane. Very poetic. Imagine having to go through that in order to read.
This is just one of Hig's routinely bleak aerial trips. Most of the time in the sky, he's searching for the unknown person who answered one of his radio transmissions. Hig also makes monthly trips to grab a case of Coke—all the plane will hold—from an abandoned delivery truck. And he offers occasional assistance to a group of fundamentalist Christians who live nearby. They prefer Sprite.
The population of Heller's Earth is dwindling due to a flu coupled with a blood-disease chaser. And there's some sort of cataclysmic climate action going on. When it comes to The Great End, the author figures, Hey, why not double down?
Hig's gun-toting redneck neighbor, Bangley, shoots most of the survivors—adults, children, whomever—who come too close to his compound. (Note to self: Befriend at least one gun-toting redneck. He or she will save my poetry-writing ass when the end times come.) Bangley also hails from Oklahoma, and that’s no surprise. Those people are too mean to die. The nukes could rain down tomorrow, and my friend Scott the Okie would be sitting on a park bench the next day, smoking a cigarette and eating a convenience-store hot dog.
Anyway, Hig and Bangley scratch out a meager existence at an airport / high-end planned community. It sucks. Anyone who comes near their home generally leans toward the “not nice” column. (Have you ever noticed in near-future fiction how nasty everyone tends to be? Apparently, the mean will inherit the Earth.)
Eventually Hig leaves it all behind to go in search of that one person who returned his radio call. You've got to dream.
Heller's writing is stripped-down and minimalist, like a studio apartment in Sparta. It's an Armageddon book as written by Ernest Hemingway. The future is spare. If you see an adjective, kill it.
Heller does get a little poetic at times. He has a poetry degree, after all. But one complaint: Heller uses too many fragments. And this one-line paragraph thing needs to stop.
I blame Chuck Palahniuk.
And Kurt Vonnegut.
Please. Write. Longer. Paragraphs. And sentences.
As for bleak near-future fiction: Why bother? It's so damn depressing. Nihilistic. Hopeless. And easy. For one thing, you don't have to develop that many characters. But I suppose there’s a certain draw to a future without student loan payments, credit checks and Total Recall remakes. And your average novelist more than likely possesses the sunny disposition necessary for describing the hacking deaths and melting polar ice in store for humanity. Just the thing for a lighthearted read—if you’re the sort of person who considers The Road a self-help book.