Required Reading: ‘The Dog Stars’

Peter Heller's terrific, apocalyptic first novel

Bruce Barcott

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Having paddled Tibet’s Tsangpo Gorge (in Hell or High Water) and sailed with eco-activists (in The Whale Warriors), Outside contributing editor Peter Heller decided to take on a new challenge: fiction. That ain’t easy—many journalists try, and few succeed. Count Heller among the few. His terrific debut novel, The Dog Stars (Knopf, $25), imagines a postapocalyptic America slate-wiped by a megaflu. Among the few survivors are Hig, a fly-fishing pilot, and Bangley, an ornery gun nut. The two bachelors eke out an existence at an old airfield in Erie, Colorado, occasionally killing stragglers who come within range of Bangley’s rifle. It’s not much of a life. Bangley trusts no one, not even our narrator, Hig. “There is much about the man that creeps me out,” says Hig, “but this is the worst, the unrelenting sense of being surveilled.” Eventually, Hig seeks out other humans, flying west and befriending an old farmer and his daughter, avoiding roaming gangs of Mad Max–like survivors and wondering what a life worth living would look like. Recalling the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy and the trout-praising beauty of David James Duncan, The Dog Stars makes a compelling case that the wild world will survive the apocalypse just fine; it’s the humans who will have the heavy lifting.

Also in media, read about Mark Kitchell’s documentary A Fierce Green Fire