Ernest Hemingway’s place in the canon of world literature is a contentious matter—at least to me. While the author of the superb Old Man and the Sea (one of the greats of the American literary scene) and the accidentally great The Sun Also Rises (published at any time other it would have just been another novel), Hemingway is likewise responsible for a number of novels and stories, as well written as they may be, that are little more than operatic tragedies. Say what you like about the undercurrents of For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, Across the River and Into the Trees, and other of his most famous novels, their primary motifs are standard war drama and romance—motifs that novels like Gone with the Wind had been deploying for decades. Peter Heller’s implementation of a Hemingway-style narrative in a post-apocalyptic setting, 2012’s The Dog Stars, is no less contentious.
Part of the 1% of the population to survive a massive pandemic, Hig is a former journeyman carpenter now living out his days with a blue heeler named Jasper at a small, abandoned airport at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Having set up a protected living space, his only other contacts are an aggressive former Navy Seal named Bangley who shares the airport with him and a group of infected Mennonites living in a nearby valley. The pilot of a small Cessna, Hig regularly reconnoiters the area with Jasper, looking for scavengers and bandits that would seek to disrupt the relatively peaceful place he and Bangley have made for themselves. But one day the monotony, coupled with a dramatic event, propel Hig to break the mold and seek the world beyond the airport.
If it is anything, The Dog Stars is a very American novel. The setting is of course Colorado, but beyond this are characterization (the classic, competent, honorable, blue collar, let’s-get-this-done type of guy), story arc (hero survives against the odds and gets the girl), and the strong connection to nature through the joys of hunting and fishing. Throwing all this into one bag, it’s no surprise the novel was a commercial success.
Written in highly clipped, minimalist prose certainly intended to utilize Hemingway’s style, The Dog Stars is a sparse story in sparse style. Which doesn’t account for the nearly 400 pages. Certain scenes and moments are effectively built using Old Papa’s cut-down verbage, some even enhanced by it; still others are wandering, occasionally superfluous. The plot not really kicking into gear until about the two-thirds mark, large portions of the opening appear more playing with style and premise—navel gazing to be less polite—than proper narrative development.
In her review, Nina Allan dismisses comparisons of The Dog Stars to another similarly set, post-apocalyptic novel, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. For certain McCarthy’s prose and story development are better, but the key difference is story aim. Where The Road seeks to offer a silver lining to atrocity (that the civilized side of humanity will persist through dark times), The Dog Stars offers simple escapism, its social commentary indirect. This fact not obvious until the final chapters of The Dog Stars, what was shaping up to be a similarly themed narrative to The Road smoothly accelerates into Hollywood styled drama—like many of Hemingway’s most famous novels I can’t help but add. Commentary on the human condition reduced to one man’s circumstances, the novel ends as entertainment with no additional layers.
I would likewise agree with Allan’s criticism of The Dog Stars as an inconsistent novel. Its pieces are splayed out on the page but do not seem joined into an organic whole. The umbrella view is natural enough, but the pieces it’s divided into do not always jive. For example, the main character survives a handful of attempts by bandits and raiders to rob and kill him, something which the nine years living alone at the airport have made him relatively calloused to, yet in a pivotal scene, he survives a pot shot from an old man and suddenly awakens to the ‘meaning ‘of life’. These and other small contradictions serve to erode a good portion of the novel’s integrity.
All that being said, The Dog Stars can be satisfying if approached as escapist entertainment. Heller captures the grittier, personal side of the post-apocalpse yet in a fashion that is not in your face like a lot of today’s post-ap fic. I would add the ruminative, pastoral scenes with Hig hunting or fishing are well done. For readers who enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, there is a good chance they will also enjoy The Dog Stars. Possessing a similar can-do spirit, alone, in almost impossible conditions, both are feel-good stories that feature a tough-minded hero see his way through adversity. Heller’s sense of style is more tightly attuned than Weir’s, but I’m not sure his novel achieves more in terms of theme or ambition, as both are far more entertainment-oriented than anything else. Heller bent on implementing a Hemingway-esque narrative in a post-apocalyptic scenario, he succeeds at delivering the drama (sometimes melo-), but is less successful in execution. Scene selection does not always adhere to a fully integrated outline and the prose is at times pretentious in its desire to be mnml. Take that as it is.