The world is coming to an end; flu has stalked the land; millions have died. Violence is the currency of most human interaction; food is scarce; government is invisible. And so on. You’ve seen most of this before. But there is a twist.
The novel’s central protagonist, Hig, is a bush pilot of sorts. He lives on a now abandoned airfield with another man, Bagley, who is a stone-cold killer, the kind of man who has a lifetime subscription to Soldier of Fortune, and wonders why he is never invited to contribute articles for it. Our hero, the aviator, has some fuel for his aircraft, a Cessna, lovingly nicknamed ‘The Beast,’ and a faithful dog, who accompanies him everywhere. He has guns. (Indeed, Bagley and Hig have a small arsenal, which also includes grenades and mortars.) They have plenty of ammunition, often dispensed at those who dare breach the boundaries of their solitary outpost. Every once in a while, Hig goes flying. He finds food, he carries out reconnaissance, he patrols the perimeters, he drops off food and supplies to another band of survivors (an act of kindness Bagley finds gratuitous). He looks for signs of life. He hears radio signals, and he follows them. He finds surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. He returns. Along the way, he loses one companion, and finds another one.
So: men have guns in the Wild West, they go hunting, fishing, tracking with faithful dogs, they kill anyone who moves. They fly, the splendid sprawling wilderness of the American West beneath them. Fuel and food and bullets are scarce, but not really. Nine years on, real scarcity still hasn’t kicked in. When the desire for human companionship gets really strong, our hero finds a beautiful woman. They bond; they have both experienced loss in the past. She soon gives herself up to him, coming to his bed at night. She asks for, and receives, ‘oral pleasure.’
This fantasy of an American West unspoiled by tourists, full of wild game, journeyed over by a light aircraft, with a never-ending supply of aviation fuel and ammunition, and just enough women, is written quite beautifully. Heller has many lyrical descriptions of man and nature, man in nature, and just plain nature. Reading The Dog Stars made me want to return to Colorado–or New Mexico, Montana, or Idaho, for that matter–to go hiking again through its valleys and over its alpine passes, to look down on its glittering cobalt lakes, to gaze up at its snow-capped peaks. I wouldn’t carry canned food. I’d hunt and fish and cook my meals by myself. Perhaps I’d get laid too. At night, in a tent, the sounds of my virtuosic love-making muffled by the gurgling brook nearby.
And if a broken-toothed, malodorous, tobacco-chewing, potentially-rapist redneck ever got in my way, whether on a highway or a trail or campsite, I’d blow his fucking brains out with one of my many guns. After warning him to back the fuck up, of course.