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Another fine mess

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The Dog Stars - Peter Heller, Mark Deakins I imagine we'll see the end of End stories right around the time we actually hit the End. American culture has always had an itch for the eschatological, and of late we seem to be in another armageddon boom. Spin the wheel: zombies, aliens, meteors, global warming, pandemics, or just the critical collapse of the modern. (Nukes have shuffled off into the attic, no more scary than--or as anachronistic a fear as--Judgment Day.)

I lay out this context because, while I'm loathe to begin with points of comparison rather than giving this fine novel a fair shake on his own terms, The Dog Stars relies upon the tics and rhythms of convention. And it'd be hard to imagine any readerly blank slate: when the protagonist Hig strays from his isolated outpost, landing his Cessna on an empty highway near an abandoned semi-truck full of cases of soda pop, few of us won't recognize that strange nostalgia for our own everyday 'luxury.' And it's equally unsurprising when a small crew of hairy, dirty stragglers steps out of the truck, and Heller rehearses a stand-off between the violent and the last vestiges of the Civilized that is as beholden to the Western as to Mad Max.

The Western may be the more precise template for the narrative: an outpost, occasionally besieged, far from civilization; the journey away from home, seeking community, risking danger; the return to, and recovery of, some sense of Home. These familiar stations of the plot will be more than enough to win over many readers. The novel is propelled by the tense dread of the best survival fictions, and there are flashes of conflict that'll clench your teeth. Yet where many such visions are bleak, where Cormac McCarthy's Road is a grim irony leading nowhere, Heller looks heavenward--Hig sees the best in everyone, even the thugs who roll into town, sees hope, despite his pervasive mournful sorrow. Heller's prose is also heavenly: oblique, oddly-gapped and -stitched thoughts capturing Hig's knotty consciousness; detailed attention to the land and its life that captures and conveys a love of nature somewhat broken by but also trying to break free from the destructive force of civilization.

It's a smart, often lovely novel--and a good, if familiar, yarn.

Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for the advance edition.