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The Dog Stars
By Peter Heller
Random House Digital Inc.
Reviewed by Yair Ben-Zvi
There's a word I consider more damning then any faint praise, and that's the word 'potential.' It, to me, implies a laziness, even a selfishness on the part of the subject that they were incapable or even just unwilling to utilize their full talents on a project. I hate this word because it's the prime weapon of those who wish to bridge their lack of understanding with a single word or phrase ('try harder' or any of its variants are some other gems).
That having been said, it pains me more than a little to say that Peter Heller's novel The Dog Stars is packed with substantial potential, but unfortunately only taps into a vague and small amount of it. Though not from, oddly enough, lack of skill or even trying, but just from, it would seem, authorial error of emphasis.
The story is fairly basic and essentially a post-apocalyptic long form reaffirmation of humanity and the essential goodness of person to person connection and, however it's structured and flawed, the idea of 'family' is inherently good.
Protagonist Hig flies a plane and, partnered with gun and survivalist nut Bangley whom he acts as scout for, ekes out an existence in an armored airport. It's a stoic existence that calls to mind the male yearnings and machismo tinged thoughts of Hemingway told in a distinctly Faulknerian voice in a, surprisingly, Faulknerian setting. It's post-apocalyptic, sure, but it's also very rural and naturalistic with much emphasis placed on (at least at first) the relationship between man and nature and even man and animal.
But the flaws in Heller's approach become quickly apparent. Unlike some of my fellow reviewers who took umbrage with Hig's pseudo stream of consciousness due to reasons of obfuscation (calling it tiring, unnecessary, maybe even trying too hard) I took issue with it for a much simpler and more direct reason: it's incredibly inconsistent, both structurally and tonally. What starts as a Benji Compson like fractured, almost expressionistic, style of writing, quickly degenerates into a level pablum with occasional tectonic shifts of true beauty and even insight. There were several stretches of text where I thought 'Terrence Malick could make an absolutely gorgeous film out of this.' And I still feel that, though Malick would have to take moderate to extreme liberties as he did with The Thin Red Line.
Another flaw, perhaps the most glaring, is one that runs parallel to the tonal inconsistency. And for a post-Armageddon text, this one is surprising -- it's schmaltzy, extremely so. Whereas McCarthy's The Road and even Walker's The Age of Miracles were brutal in their depictions of humanity struggling (nobly or savagely) in its death throes, Heller is much more restrained and subdued as regards the brutality of his setting, and even positively hopeful as regards humanity's inherent worth and capacity for grace under the weight of an indifferent and even cruel universe.
Which leads to the next problem of the book. Whatever case Heller is trying to make with his novel is undermined by his, well, lack of a full bodied depiction. For a book so rife with prosaic and even poetic beauty, even including allusions to great works of ancient and more recent works of the world canon, this is a remarkably hollow feeling story. While we're told again and again about the catastrophically small amount of survivors on Earth, the repeated references to humanity as a whole, to civilization rocked to its foundations, leaves the reader yearning for some missives from the edge. It's described but never elaborated on, the state of the rest of the world outside of the characters and their settings, but aside from one bizarre yet more or less satisfying anomaly of an ending, we're left wanting more. In short: Hemingway could, sometimes, talk his way around and around a story successfully. Peter Heller is, I'm sorry to say, not quite so successful.
It's not a wonderful book but, curiously, there are portions of wonder and authorial aplomb scattered here and there, surprising in their veracity and even heavy-hearted whimsy. While not a staggering work, it will stay with you long enough to move you, maybe even make you feel for the blighted but hopeful world depicted. Definitely worth a look and consideration.
Out of 10: 7.4