The Dogs Stars made me cry, at a very specific spot.
Its author, Peter Heller, has revived my faith—recently put into jeopardy by two authors—that contemporary literature is not, yet, going to the dogs (if you’ll pardon the expression).
I’m drawn to dystopian tales: The Lottery, 1984, Farenheit 451, On The Beach, Woman on the Edge of Time, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Children of Men, Oryx and Crake. (Thinking about this last one still triggers a shudder; I’m not ready for the sequel yet.) And Shades of Grey (by Jasper Fforde, not the other book with a similar title).
But I’ve developed a habit of shying away from books written by men. (This quirk is keeping me from Jonathan Franzen.) However, my friend Dan posted on Goodreads that he was reading The Dog Stars. Although we don’t have a lot of books in common, Dan has impeccable taste.
So, I gave The Dog Stars a try.
At a little over three hundred pages, with brief paragraphs and chapters, it’s well suited to short attention spans caused by muggy summer days or too much web clicking. It’s readable. There is action, and reflection, and a lean-ness to the story that echoes its theme.
A turn-off for me, in reading male authors, is how they mangle their female characters. Especially when the main character—or, even worse, when the first-person narrator—is a woman. (Dickens is a special case, though he’s created many drippy female characters.) Perhaps Heller’s novel works its magic because the main character is a man, Hig.
Pilot, hunter, gardener, fisherman, Hig has also, occasionally, been a writer, so it’s plausible that he’d take the time to record his innermost thoughts. Bad stuff has happened, so it’s understandable that his thoughts are sometimes jumbled.
Apples used to be one of the sweetest things. In North America. Why they were such a treat, why the student currying favor left one on the teacher’s desk. Honey and apples. Molasses. Maple sugar in the north woods. A candy cane at Christmas. Visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. Sometimes in the fall on the way back from a patrol we land at an orchard north of Longmont. Acres and acres of apples, varieties I don’t know the names of, most of the trees long dead for lack of water, those living along the still flowing old ditches gone scraggly, bristling with new shoots, reverting to some kind of wildness, the apples stunted and pecked, ravaged by caterpillars, but sweet. Sweeter than before. Whatever is left of whatever they distill is more concentrated in their complete and dangerous freedom.
While reading The Dog Stars, you may find yourself worrying if or when the bad stuff might happen for real, rather than only—safely—in a novel.
But I think you’ll also find your ordinary life just a little sweeter.