Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book Review: "The Dog Stars" by Peter Heller

The post-apocalyptic novel has been with us at least since Mary Shelley published The Last Man in 1826. The basic model is familiar – the author invokes some catastrophe to kill off the vast majority of humanity and then follows the lone (or few) protagonist(s) through the effort to survive and build a new future in a hostile world.

The nature of the precipitating catastrophe is rather beside the point. Writers have called upon plague, astronomical disaster, alien invasion and thermonuclear holocaust (recently, zombies have been popular). The point is what happens afterward.

For most of the latter half of the last century, nuclear war was the preferred disaster (see Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz). Of late, however, the pendulum seems to have swung back to favor pestilence. Which brings us to Peter Heller's recent work, The Dog Stars.

Fine, you say, ...but what has this got to do with aviation? Well, the connection involves one of the important supporting characters in the story. In this tale, a virulent strain of influenza has carried off almost all of the population. The protagonist, a survivor who goes by the name Hig, lives at an airfield. He has a friend, and a dog, and an airplane. That would be the Beast.

"I hand pump the 100 low lead aviation gas out of the old airport tank when the sun is not shining and I have the truck too that was making the fuel delivery. More fuel than the Beast can burn in my lifetime if I keep my sorties local, which I plan to, I have to. She's a small plane, a 1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut. Cream and blue. I'm figuring I'm dead before the Beast gives up the final ghost."

The friend is the aptly named Bangley, who is testy and a bit of an odd duck, but who has the redeeming virtue of being a crack shot and well equipped with automatic weapons and things that go boom. Hig and the Beast patrol their perimeter from the air and Bangley sees to security. Hig's other job is to go up to the hills with his dog Jasper and bring back the occasional deer or some carp (the trout being gone since the streams warmed up).

Hig's life is pretty stable, but his focus is on the things that are gone. The things of Before. He holds on tenaciously to the connections with Before.

But of course, the connections break and Hig comes adrift. He has to go off in search of new moorings. It's the Beast that enables him to do this, taking him to unexpected places where unforeseeable events turn him away from the past and toward the future. And when he has to get himself (and newly met others) out of a tight spot he achieves his goal using his own skill and the Beast's reliability and horsepower. (Incidentally, this occurs in one of the best accounts of a back-country short field takeoff that you'd ever care to read. I couldn't breathe 'til they cleared the trees!)

At the end of the tale, Hig still has a precarious existence, albeit with a couple more people to be close to. But he's shed his longing for the past and found reasons to hope for a better future. And he's still flying.

The Dog Stars would be a fine read even without the airplane. Peter Heller writes vividly and packs a great deal of meaning into few words. The reader comes to know Hig quite well and to care what happens to him. And for a pilot, the aviation related scenes are icing on the cake. The author presents them using correct terminology but never lapsing into jargon that might put off the groundling reader. And very few errors crept in during the editing process (though I did wince when an oil change involved a case of "50 straight weight Arrowshell").

We learn that the Beast wears registration N6333A which, by coincidence, is also the N-number of a '56 Skylane owned by Peter C. Heller of Denver, CO. So Hig comes by his love of flight legitimately. I recommend Mr. Heller's book to you, and I hope he and '33 Alpha enjoy many years of flying together.


Parts Hummer said...

It took me a while to get used to the author's writing style. I liked most of the characters, but it shows a negative, although probably honest and truthful, view of human nature

Frank Van Haste said...

P.H., thanks for commenting. I thought that the author was going for an intentionally Hemingway-esque style.,..but it didn't bother me. And I concur, the "view of human nature" on display - good and bad - is probably pretty realistic.

Best regards,


Gun Accessories said...

Just found you. Lovely concept, mini-graphic novels about novels! I loved The Dog Stars, and it looks like you did too. You were mentioned on a booksite where I am a moderator, so you may get a few visits from over the pond, now.

Frank Van Haste said...

G.A., thanks for commenting! I look forward to welcoming any visitors from the book site you moderate. I hope you read my recent review of S.M. Belser's Blood on the Snow -- I think you'd like it.



Unknown said...


My name is Blanca and I'm a professional translator. I'm currently (co)translating this novel into Spanish and I'm having a terrible time translating the very sentence you quote ("50 straight weight Arrowshell"). I know next to nothing about airplanes (other than having a few thousand miles on my back as a passenger in regular commercial planes) but I cannot find any reference that helps me. It was a great relieve to see that you winced at the sentence, 'cause it means there is something wrong with it. I would really appreciate if you could tell me what's that.

Thanks a lot!

Frank Van Haste said...


The reference is to a type of engine oil used in aviation piston engines, and the 'wince' is because the trade name for the product is 'Aeroshell' (because it is made by the Shell Oil Co. for use in aeroplanes) and somehow in the copy editing process it got transcribed as 'Arrowshell' and never corrected.

The part about '50 straight weight' refers to the viscosity (thickness) of the oil. The 50 makes reference to the SAE standard for measuring viscosity. The word 'weight' is often exchanged for 'viscosity' in the engine world. "Straight weight' means it is a single-viscosity oil as opposed to a multi-viscosity oil like the 10W40 you may use in your auto.

I hope that helps. If you have any other questions you can e-mail me at frank'at'vanhaste'dot'com.



Unknown said...

Thank you so much! You've really helped me.