Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog StarsThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Meager as it is. Nothing to lose as I have. Nothing is something somehow.”

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Hig doesn’t have much, but what he has is precious to him. He has his books of poetry. He has rivers to fish in. He has fuel to fly his plane. He has a furry co-pilot named Jasper. He has a garden. He has Bangley.

He used to have a wife. He used to have friends. He used to have the possibility of a long life full of happiness achieving all those things we are supposed to achieve.

He wasn’t supposed to be old at forty.

They say it was a weapons grade flu that got loose from a lab in England. Of course, they blamed it on India. The same way we call stickers in Kansas Texas Sandburs. If it ain’t good it had to come from somewhere else.

Nobody wants to be responsible for an apocalypse especially one that kills 99.6% of the population.

Hig doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that would survive the apocalypse, not because he doesn’t have skills or value, but because at his core he is a helluva nice guy. Too nice to do what needs to be done to stay alive.

Like kill people.

Bangley is a man who loves his guns and incendiary devices. The end of the world was a horror story for most people, but for Bangley it meant he could finally blossom into the man he always wanted to be. Don’t be fooled though, he has regrets as well.

They live up near the mountains. Hig lives in an old airplane hangar and Bangley lives in a house up on the hill with a good view of “the kill zone”. The house in front of the hanger is the bait. The place that people looking to score food, and weapons will attack first. They even leave an old dumpster out front to provide the attackers with a place to hide which actually just bunches them up so Bangley can pick them off like yellow ducks at a county fair.

Hig and Bangley disagree on tactics.

”Still we are divided, there are cracks in the union. Over principle. His: Guilty until--until nothing. Shoot first ask later. Guilty, then dead. Versus what? Mine: Let a visitor live a minute longer until they prove themselves to be human? Because they always do. What Bangley said in the beginning: Never ever negotiate. You are negotiating your own death.

What keeps them alive is their differences. It is one of those strange alliances that maybe doesn’t make sense when drawn out on a blueprint. Half the time they aren’t even sure they like each other, but the fact of the matter is Bangley is the relative you can’t hardly stand to break bread with, but you still... love... the stubborn SOB.

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Dogs are really something else. They are the only animal on the planet that absolutely loves humanity. They are loyal. They understand the hierarchy and consider their owner their King/Queen. They will kill and they will die for a human being.

I grew up with a pack of farmhouse mutts, but there is one dog that is a ghost in all my memories. He was part pointer and part who knows what. He was never trained as a bird dog, but he still would assume the stance of his ancestry whenever he would run across a quail or a pheasant. He was a lover, as many of our neighbors for miles around would remind us when they found themselves saddled with a bunch of black and white puppies. He had a groove along the top of his back where someone had shot him with a rifle. One time I found him on the edge of our property bloodied from a shotgun blast. I hauled him back in my red wagon to the house bawling my eyes out.

He recovered, scarred, but undeterred.

My best memory of Spot/Putz (He never was formally named, but should have had the name of a gladiator. Putz was short for puppy.) was one time when I was somewhere around ten. I was playing in the yard which was the size of a football field. Farm machinery surrounded the outer edges, but my dad had always kept the center open so he could hit my brother and I pop flies in the evening. Across the street lived this gigantic German Shepherd (I’m sure he was a normal sized shepherd, but when one is 10 years old a dog like that looks like ⅓ of Cererbus.) He was meaner than chicken shit (Not sure why we say that, but I will say that I have never fallen harder than the time I fell liberating eggs from a coop on a chicken shit slick floor.).

This German Shepherd saw me out in the yard and came racing across the street at me. I was caught in no man’s land. I was too far from any of the equipment to climb to safety or to get to the line of trees and lilac hedges that surrounded the house to hide.

I was about to become dog chow.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw this black and white blur. Putz was streaking from the line of hedges and he exploded through the Shepherd. I remember the meaty impact as he sent his chest through the legs of the Shepherd. The Shepherd cartwheeled into the air and landed on his side. Putz took off running for the hedge. I ran for a Combine (threshing machine for those not familiar with farm equipment terms).

A few days later Putz was chained in the yard for one of his many transgressions up in town. The Shepherd came to see him with a couple of Labs he liked to hang out with. He didn’t come by himself because he was a yellow bellied %*@^! The fight was a brawl, cage fighting at its worst. My Dad had to fire off a shotgun in the air to get the encroachers to leave, tails between their legs, limping.

So when Jasper dies, I understand how Hig felt. Jasper doesn’t get to go down fighting like a Valhalla inspired dream. He just passes in the night...from old age.

“You can't metabolize the loss. It is in the cells of your face, your chest, behind the eyes, in the twists of your gut. Muscle, sinew, bone. It is all of you. When you walk you propel it forward....Then it sits with you. The pain puts its arm over your shoulders. It is your closest friend, steadfast. And at night you can't bear to hear your own breath, unaccompanied by another. And underneath the big stillness like a score, is the roaring of the cataract of everything being and being torn away. Then, the pain is lying beside your side, close. Does not bother you with the sound even of breathing.”

We all have to have reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. Hig’s universe had shrunk down to the space that Jasper occupied. When he died the Dog Stars stopped orbiting. There was only one solution. Hig needed to expand out his universe beyond just the continued day to day survival with Bangley. If he had been in Australia he would have went on a walkabout, but since he was a pilot with a 1956 Cessna at his disposal he went on a flyabout.

The rest of the story can only be found between the pages of Peter Heller’s book. Although I would like to mention that the flutter a man feels at seeing a woman’s shape, those hips, the way they walk, even at a hundred yards brings out the pointer pup in all of us. :-)

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There is nothing that adds to my own enjoyment more than someone telling me how much they loved a book. Thank you Gloria! Your words expressing your joy for this book certainly enhanced my own. I also want to dedicate this review to a black and white mutt named Putz who gave me my first lessons in courage, boldness, and squeezing every drop out of life. I’ve been on a bit of an apocalyptic reading binge of late. For those that have followed me for a while you well know these binges do happen from time to time. I am not depressed as a worried friend recently asked me. I find well written apocalyptic novels strangely uplifting.

***4.25 stars out of 5***

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