Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.

When I first pulled Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars from the shelves of a bookstore I remember muttering a sarcastic “yeah right,” after I read a comment on its cover claiming it was “A novel about the end of the world which makes you glad to be alive.” That’s not the role of apocalyptic fiction, I thought. But after reading the novel’s blurb, I decided to give it a go.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic America, a decade after a virus has killed 99% of the population. Hig, a poet, handyman, gardener, fisherman, hunter and pilot along with his dog Jasper, share a small airfield with a Bangley, a gun-toting survivalist. They have nothing in common but need each other to survive. Hig uses his Cessna to make daily surveillance flights searching for marauding survivors, while Bangley uses his guns to kill them. All other survivors are deemed threats because Hig and Bangley both know what they had to do to survive.

So at the beginning of the book they are hard characters to like. But as the book progresses, and other survivors attack them, it becomes clear that their ruthless defence of the airfield is the only reason they have survived. Hig, Bangley and Jasper seemed destined to live out their lives together after successfully killing anyone who comes near. But then things change.

I found the story engrossing, but the authors writing continually interrupted the flow of the story. In particular his decision not to use quote marks to specify dialogue and not to use attributions annoyed me. I often had to re-read a passage to discover who, if anyone, had been speaking.

Peter Carey did the same thing in The True History of the Kelly Gang. But he is a much better writer than Peter Heller, as I never found myself asking if someone had just spoken. Carey also had a reason for his lack of dialogue signifiers as he was trying to emulate the absence of punctuation in a the Jerilderie letter, a letter dictated by Ned Kelly to Joe Bryne. I wonder why Peter Heller chose to forgo dialogue signifiers. It certainly did not add to the writing.

Another quirk with Heller’s writing is that he often had the same word twice in a row, for example: “They had seen enough, enough to flee, but not the full demise.” “Before before” was quite common.

By the end of The Dog Stars, the book had lived up to its front cover comment and instilled some hope for humanity into me. It is just a shame that Heller’s writing style damaged the flow of the story. It turned what could have been a really excellent novel, into one that is just good.  


Anthony J. Langford said...

Good review Graham.
I hate it when the writing takes me out of the story. Too much emphasis on style in publishing today, not enough on character and story.

I'm not a huge Carey fan either though have respect for his career.

Graham Clements said...

I'll beg to differ on Carey. Loved the True History of the Kelly Gang, especially as I live in Kelly country. Really liked the way it let the reader decide whether Kelly was just a deluded criminal, or someone who was a victim of society and could have gone on to great things. Also thought Illwhacker, which verges on fantasy, a bit like Bliss, was a great story about how people delude themselves - seems to be a common theme in his books. Loved the film Bliss. And I have a great short story collection of his, that includes a very memorable story where aliens go unicorn hunting. Jack Maggs was okay, took a while to get going, as did My Life as a Fraud. I have about five other of his books in my shelves which I will read eventually, when I want to read something about mankind being deluded, like after the next election, when people are surprised that Tony Abbott's policies fail to stop the Asylum seekers (not that they should be stopped), fail to lower the price of electricity (when he removes the carbon tax), and create a much greater recession than the one we are heading into (when he first sacks about 100,000 public servants and then cuts spending due to the decreased revenue from companies experiencing the recession). But at least house prices will drop, and if you still have a job, you might be able to buy one. All the deluded people, were do they all come from? (With apologies to the Beatles.)