Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

19 July 2013

(Novel) The Dog Stars by: Peter Heller

(Reaction) People in the Sky by: Antonio Conejos

Dog Stars is about what happens after the world ends and what remains after much of human existence is hollowed out. After unimaginable death, loss and misery the novel asks what is more resilient than sorrow, what is stronger than the guilt of being alive.

It's not fairness or compassion which remain. Indeed Bangley, the ultimate survivor, scorns these attributes which Hig on occasion displays. The two thrive because of Bangley’s ruthlessness. Pops, another world hardened realist, confirms to Hig later on that he (Hig) could not have survived without Bangley’s pragmatic approach to living - laying ambushes, marshalling resources, showing no mercy.

Bangley survives because he is prepared, has been prepared, all his life, He had been waiting for the End all his life... He didn’t do anything that wasn’t aimed at surviving. This single minded devotion to live has no room for considering the needs of others. Even the makeshift relationship between Hig and Bangley is one of utility. Hig is the aerial scout who warns Bangley of approaching danger. In turn Bangley deals with that danger, often swiftly and decisively.

It's not even decency which remains - society lost that a long time ago. There are the inevitable roving gangs of thugs and rapists, subsisting on a simple rule of violence and base instincts. Bangley does not hesitate in shooting children, as he cooly does when he spies one running after Hig in the forest. Even Hig executes in cold blood, as he does at the cola truck when one of the would be robbers casually announces he is a multiple rapist. Finally there is the old couple at Grand Junction who are the sirens of the novel; luring planes in and then feasting on their remains.

What does remain then? Ultimately the yearning for a group, a larger family, maybe even society, cannot be extinguished. This is especially true in Hig who at first seems to renounce the very idea of any further social connections. He remembers how everyone he has loved is gone. How his wife suffered and how he ended her life at her request. Mellisa part of the same circle. But different because we are entrusted with certain souls. In the place of his wife he has Bangley, a poor substitute. If I were made of different stuff, if I thought I could defend this place myself I would shoot Bangely where he stands and get it over with.

So divorced is Hig from other people that he cannot communion even with the Families, a group of people he has been helping from the start of the novel. It was Jasper, not just. It was all of it. Was this hell? To love like this, to grieve from fifteen feet, an uncrossable distance? Even if Hig yearns for other people, there is no one who can reciprocate his desire for a community, to be a person amidst other people.

Hig is clearly scarred by the apocalypse. His sentences are funny, as if his language facility was also stricken with disease. He at once wants to forget his past (does not want to be reminded of his old life) and yet clings to it as well (Jasper). He can't let go even after everything is gone, Once everything ends, you are no more free.

Yet is is Hig, scarred, lonely, adrift Hig, who still manages to affirm that life is better spent in community rather than in fearful solitude. This realization comes slowly and involves even more loss; particularly the passing on of his last tangible connection to his old life, Jasper.

Once Jasper goes though there is nothing to keep Hig on the ground and he leaves, ostensibly to search for the source of the signal at Grand Junction. On one hand since Hig no longer has anything left to tie him to his old life, this quest to reach Grand Junction can be seen as a reaching out for new people. But even more basic than that is simply Hig’s desire to find out what makes life worth living. And he finds that reason while flying over a box canyon he accidentally stumbles across, and where the inhabitants almost manage to shoot him down, In that instant I knew what I had come for... It was to be glad again to be alive.

Being shot at makes it bracingly clear to Hig that he does not want to die just yet. With his priorities clear he eventually manages to bind together a new family, with Cima, her father and Bangley. The individuals of this new family are like the random stars which only form constellations because humans fancy they see some pattern connecting them; it is Hig who forms the connecting lines between these people.

After he has lost everything he could lose, and even when he is still haunted by that loss, I told him about the radio transmission I’d picked up three years ago, I told him about hunting and fishing and Hasper dying and killing the boy and others, and being at the end of loss, Hig still finds it within himself to reach out and stitch together a community. This is what remains, a bulwark against oblivion. Against the darkness of total loss.


Beautiful language. The Dog Stars is a great example of the importance of how a story is told versus the events that make up a story. To emphasize the point that Dog Stars revolves around the trauma of the apocalypse, and not the apocalypse itself, is the fact that the cause for the end is never spelled out. There are hints of disease but also environmental ruin as well. Fish and animals are dying out, along with vast acres of trees. Rain comes less and less, drought a coming certainty. Setting aside the how, why, what when of the collapse of civilization allows the novel to ask what now? Now at the end, what remains?

This fragility and bleakness, the wistfulness and despair, is all captured in the language of the novel.

This was our ritual while we waited for our lives to truly begin and I think now that maybe true sweetness can only happen in limbo. I don't know why. Is it because we are so unsure, so tentative and waiting? Like it needs that much room, that much space to expand. The not knowing anything really, the hoping, the aching transience: This is not real, not really, and so we let it alone, let it unfold lightly. Those times that can fly.
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