The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller — a discussion.

The Dog Stars by Peter HellerJ.W. Manus and Julia Rachel Barrett discuss THE DOG STARS, by Peter Heller

How we heard about it:

J.W.  On the radio, actually. I was half-listening to a local morning show when I caught “apocalyptic fiction.” Being a sucker for a good end of the world story, I caught the title and the author’s name (he’s from Colorado, as am I), and a bit about a dog. End of the world AND a dog. I had to check it out.

J.R.  J.W. Manus told me about The Dog Stars. I don’t listen to the radio much, aside from sports-type talking heads, but when I heard the author had attended the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and there was a dog in the story, my interest was piqued.

Why we bought it:

J.W.  I almost didn’t. I’m a professional ebook formatter and the sample was just… awkward. Block paragraphs. Bleah. But then I kept finding passages like this one:

“Did you ever read the Bible? I mean sit down and read it like it was a book? Check out Lamentations. That’s where we’re at, pretty much. Pretty much lamenting. Pretty much pouring out our hearts like water.”

How could I resist? So I didn’t.

J.R.  I bought the book because J.W. Manus told me to buy the book and I trust her judgement. She said very little other than buy it. It’s a great book. (JW: I might have been screaming, “You HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!”)

What hooked us:

J.W.  I have a real fondness for apocalyptic and end-of-the-world stories. I don’t know why. Maybe because of Twilight Zone. Remember the episode with Burgess Meredith who just wanted some time alone, some peace and quiet, so he could read? I always sympathized with that. At least once a day I wish the world would disappear. The problem with most stories (print and video) of this genre is that they tend to fall into two camps: the Stephen King STAND version which has an ultimate showdown between good and evil. Or the Hollywood MAD MAX version in which everyone goes insane except for one loner who travels around and gets involved in epic battles. Those are fine. I love both. It gets a little boring, though, when I know every character beforehand, having seen them a hundred times before, and can predict every plot point, having memorized the structure which so rarely deviates.

THE DOG STARS is different. It’s a story about grief and letting go of the past. With basically two characters, actually three if you count the dog, it shows how people adapt and cope and come to grips with a situation that is NEVER going to go back. There’s Hig, a pilot, who clings to the past in the form of his 1956 Cessna 182, and to the memory of his wife. He exists, static in many ways. The story is his. In some places it reads like stream of consciousness, because he needs to do that to keep his sanity, to talk himself into the present and convince himself that he needs to go on. In some ways, that’s where the dog comes in. Jasper. A good dog. Hig’s co-pilot. Hig’s link to the past.

And then you have Bangley. Bangley is Hig’s “neighbor.” Bangley is the Burgess Meredith TZ character on steroids–along with being heavily armed. The end of the world is the best thing that ever happened to Bangley. He’s a survivor. It’s what he does. He revels in it. He isn’t evil, but he’s a scary, scary dude. Hig and Bangley co-exist, sort of partners, but sort of something else:

“I stared at him, his mind going that far, to the middle of the night, me and her, Jesus. My only neighbor. What can I say to Bangley? He has saved my bacon more times. Saving my bacon is his job. I have the plane, I am the eyes, he has the guns, he is the muscle. He knows I know he knows: he can’t fly, I don’t have the stomach for killing. Any other way probably just be one of us. or none.”

J.R.  I have a fondness for soft sentimental weak-kneed type heroes who survive despite their unpreparedness. And I have a soft spot for hard-ass Bangley-types who survive because the world has changed in ways for which they are prepared. The collaboration of the two characters– the tension, the mistrust, the reluctant but very necessary co-dependence– is one of the things that creates such a gripping tale.

What put this book into the canon of Best Books Ever:

J.W.  The ending. No spoilers here, so I will speak in general. The major flaw with much apocalyptic fiction is that it fails to answer the really interesting questions the scenario always raises: What would you do if the world ended? Where is the hope? The Good versus Evil stories can make a rousing good story with lots of big battles and high adventures, but they tend to be forgettable. Fine. Monster defeated, check. On to the next. The Mad Max stories are mere mind-candy. They’re all about weirdness and insane people. THE DOG STARS answers the questions elegantly, without any otherworldly Evil Monsters to defeat or big battles between stock-casting crazies. There is no ONE who rises to save them all and point out the new path. Hig and Bangley have to find new paths on their own. They have to let go of the past and find the courage to do more than survive.

Hope is what this story is really all about. Hope for mankind comes in a touch. Such a small thing, but so essential. We–humans–need to touch each other and that’s what makes it possible to go on.

J.R.  I agree with J.W. It’s the ending. It’s the love. I’ve avoided reading literary fiction on any regular basis for several years due to the above issues – the mandatory hopelessness, the obligatory depressing plot devices, the heinous protagonists who do not deserve to live. Yes, it’s true, I suffer from bouts of homicidal rage when it comes to your run of the mill literary fiction.

The Dog Stars is not that. Without giving away spoilers, let me say this- the book broke my heart and I sobbed for an hour. And yet, when all was said and done, the ending lifted me up higher than than the front range of the Rocky Mountains. It was brilliant, so marvelously understated, and so full of love.

J.W. This is a tough one to categorize. It is literary fiction, I suppose. I think I would call it transcendent fiction. It rises above attempts to pigeonhole. Let’s call it a new genre: Human Fiction. That’s what the story is really about. People. Dealing. The end-of-the-world aspect is the situation and never becomes THE story or overshadows the characters.

J.R.  Your response (above) is most often the reason post-apocalyptic fiction fails to impress – the story is the all. The characters are second thoughts. Not in The Dog Stars.

Other things we loved:

J.W.  The writing style. No dialogue, lapses into stream of consciousness, spare and beautiful imagery.

Characters who felt real and honest and alive.

The dog.

J.R.  The writing style made me feel right at home. I knew it. I felt the story in my bones.

The narrative. Nothing wasted. Nothing extraneous.

Above all, The Dog. The dog was the heart and soul of the story, even when he wasn’t there. It doesn’t matter to a dog that the world has gone to hell, as long as his master is with him. In the end that’s what mattered – the ties that bind. Therein lies the lesson and the quiet beauty of The Dog Stars.


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13 Responses to The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller — a discussion.

  1. Amber Skyze says:

    Thanks for sharing your discussion. :) Now you’ve piqued my interest.

  2. Jaye says:

    Read the story, Amber. You won’t be sorry.

  3. anny cook says:

    A lovely review. Thank you for posting!

  4. Margaret Y. says:

    Oh, gosh darn it you guys, now I HAVE TO read this. My to-be-read pile is embarrassing. But when a book is this good, I’ll make room!

  5. Thanks for the review. Julia, you haven’t steered me wrong yet. Off to get The Dog Stars. Like I need another book. :)

  6. Great book, Stephanie. My top three in recent years – lit fic – are Replay by Ken Grimwood, Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, and The Dog Stars.

  7. Buy it, Margaret – totally worth the money!

  8. This is a wonderful book, Anny.

  9. Jaye’s right, Amber. So worth your time!

  10. Tom Stronach says:

    Wow, great discussion review, I can see a new career path here, welcome to the, ‘Sisters of Chaos’ book review club as authors clamour to have their books reviewed by them ….

  11. I like that, Tom – Sisters of Chaos. We could do it!