A post-apocalyptic story with an open, elegant heart, Heller's debut novel follows a pilot, Hig, and an ex-military man, Bangley, in their fight for survival. Although stuck together in an uneasy partnership, they each flawlessly compensate for the deficits in the other and guard their "home" — an abandoned airport — from marauding intruders. Even as danger lurks around every corner and death is present in every exchange, the two work together as a well-oiled machine.
Yet, nine years on, Hig is lost and yearning for something he can't quite name. Leaving Bangley on his own, Hig takes off in his little Cessna and flies beyond the point of no return, holding onto the only thing he can — hope.
The Dog Stars is an achingly beautiful book with characters that are wholly human. It's a dazzling story full of loss, pain, and sorrow, but also truth. And every page is absolutely humming with brilliance. Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
A riveting, powerful debut novel from an award-winning adventure writer: the story of a pilot surviving in a world filled with loss — and of what he is willing to risk to rediscover, against all odds, connection, love, and grace.
Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. His wife is gone, his friends are dead, he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, his only neighbor a gun-toting misanthrope. In his 1956 Cessna, Hig flies the perimeter of the airfield or sneaks off to the mountains to fish and pretend that things are the way they used to be. But when a random transmission somehow beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life — something like his old life — exists beyond the airport. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return — not enough fuel to get him home — following the trail of the static-broken voice on the radio. But what he encounters and what he must face — in the people he meets, and in himself — is both better and worse than anything he could have hoped for.
"Leave it to Peter Heller to imagine a post-apocalyptic world that contains as much loveliness as it does devastation. His likable hero, Hig, flies around what was once Colorado in his 1956 Cessna, chasing all the same things we chase in these pre-annihilation days: love, friendship, the solace of the natural world, the chance to perform some small kindness, and a good dog for a co-pilot. The Dog Stars is a wholly compelling and deeply engaging debut." Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted
"Take the sensibility of Hemingway. Or James Dickey. Place it in a world where a flu mutation has wiped out ninety-nine percent of the population. Add in a heartbroken man with a fishing rod, some guns, a small plane. Don't forget the dog. Now imagine this man retains more hope than might be wise in such a battered and brutal time. More trust. More hunger for love — more capacity for it, too. That's what Peter Heller has given us in his beautifully written first novel. The Dog Stars is a gripping tale of one man's fight for survival against impossibly long odds. A man who has lost nearly everything but his soul. And what's so moving about Heller's book is that he shows us how sometimes a big soul is the only thing a man needs: the keystone, the center pillar, the hunk of masonry upon which all else will rise or fall." Scott Smith, author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins
"Heller is a masterful storyteller and The Dog Stars is a beautiful tribute to the resilience of nature and the relentless human drive to find meaning and deep connections with life and the living. In this chillingly realistic post-apocalyptic setting, readers will root for Heller's characters and be moved by their toughness as well as their tenderness." Julianna Baggott, author of Pure
"The Dog Stars is a giant of a novel that goes about its profound business with what looks alarmingly like ease. For all those who thought Cormac McCarthy's The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world — think again. Peter Heller has dark and glittering news from the future, and delivers it in prose that stops you like a wolf in the snow. Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book." Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising
"Richly evocative yet streamlined journal entries propel the high-stakes plot while simultaneously illuminating Hig's nuanced states of mind as isolation and constant vigilance exact their toll, along with his sorrow for the dying world....Heller's surprising and irresistible blend of suspense, romance, social insight, and humor creates a cunning form of cognitive dissonance neatly pegged by Hig as an 'apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell' — a novel, that is, of spiky pleasure and signal resonance." Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
"In the tradition of postapocalyptic literary fiction such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, this hypervisceral first novel by adventure writer Heller (Kook) takes place nine years after a superflu has killed off much of mankind....With its evocative descriptions of hunting, fishing, and flying, this novel, perhaps the world's most poetic survival guide, reads as if Billy Collins had novelized one of George Romero's zombie flicks. From start to finish, Heller carries the reader aloft on graceful prose, intense action, and deeply felt emotion." Publishers Weekly (starred)
A riveting, powerful novel about a pilot living in a world filled with loss — and what he is willing to risk to rediscover, against all odds, connection, love, and grace.
Narrated by a man who is part warrior and part dreamer, a hunter with a great shot and a heart that refuses to harden, The Dog Stars is both savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.
About the Author
Peter Heller holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in both fiction and poetry. An award-winning adventure writer and longtime contributor to NPR, Heller is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure, and a regular contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek. He is also the author of several nonfiction books, including Kook; The Whale Warriors; and Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion Peter Heller’s novel about a pilot and his dog trying to survive in a world filled with loss, The Dog Stars.
1. The prose style of The Dog Stars
is clipped, terse, often fragmented. Why would Heller choose this way of writing this particular story? In what ways is it fitting?
2. At the beginning of Chapter III, the narrator wonders why he’s telling this story. What might be his motivations? Who does he imagine his audience will be?
3. Hig says that Bangley “had been waiting for the End all his life. . . . He didn’t do anything that wasn’t aimed at surviving” [p. 71]. He also clearly enjoys killing people. In what ways is Hig different from Bangley? How did “the End” affect him? How does he feel about killing?
4. How and why does Hig’s relationship with Bangley change over the course of the novel?
5. Jasper’s death is a turning point for Hig. How and why does it affect him so powerfully?
6. When Cima’s father asks Hig why he came to their canyon—why he flew beyond the point of no return—Hig can’t find an answer. What might have prompted Hig to take that risk? What was he looking for?
7. When they decide to take a ewe and a ram with them on the plane, Hig says, “Like the Ark. Here we go” [p. 273]. He says it jokingly, but does the novel offer a sense of hope that life on the planet might continue, postapocalypse? What other biblical references occur in the novel?
8. The Dog Stars is a serious book about a devastating subject, but what are some of its more lighthearted moments? Why is it important that the book have this mixture of tenderness and violence, anxiety and peace?
9. What has caused the end of human civilization in the novel? Why have the scattered survivors become so savage? Does the postapocalyptic world Heller presents seem accurate and likely, given the state of the world today?
10. Why is Hig’s relationship with Cima so important in the novel? What makes it particularly touching, given what each of them has suffered?
11. The novel’s ending is ambiguous. Cima, Hig, Bangley, and Pops have formed a kind of family, the spruce and aspen are coming back, eagles and hawks are flourishing, but the trout and elk are gone, water is disappearing, and mysterious jets are flying overhead. What might happen next, or in the next ten years, for these characters and the world they live in?
12. Why does Heller conclude The Dog Stars with Hig’s favorite poem “When Will I Be Home?” by Li Shang-Yin? Why is this a fitting way to end the story? In what ways is the novel about the longing for home?
13. What does the novel imply about human nature, after the constraints of civilization have been removed? What does it suggest about the possible consequences of the way we are living now?
14. What similarities does The Dog Stars share with other recent dystopian novels like The Hunger Games and The Road? In what important ways does it differ from them?