The story is narrated by Hig, one of a very small number of people who've survived a disastrous flu-like epidemic that wiped out most of the human race, at a time when global warming is also devastating the planet's wildlife. Hig and his beloved dog Jasper live on an airfield in the Colorado Rockies, in an uneasy alliance with Hig's trigger-happy and sardonic neighbour, the aptly-named Bangley. Together they eke out an existence, pooling their skills to ensure their survival: Bangley, with his arsenal of weapons, keeps constant watch for invasions by scavengers, shooting to kill on sight; Hig's duties include growing vegetables for them to eat and patrolling the skies of their "territory" in his Cessna. Theirs is a bleak, harsh and lonely existence, pared back to the very basics of survival and filled with suspicion of all other human beings in case they're contagious or hostile, or both. Hig, however, spends much of his time thinking about his life "Before", contrasting it with the spartan and often violent life he has to lead now and mourning all that he has lost, particularly in human terms.
In the course of Hig's sorties in his Cessna and his trek into the mountains to hunt we come to know him well, despite the rather terse and fragmented style in which he tells his story. We sympathise completely with his grief and his guilt at having survived, and with his yearning for something more than his existence with Bangley currently holds. In many ways while reading The Dog Stars I was reminded of Antoine de St Exupery's Le Petit Prince, one of my favourite books of all time: at the heart of both books are the existential themes of love and friendship, loneliness and loss, and above all the urge to find some meaning in an apparently absurd and meaningless existence. Hig's pivotal decision to fly his plane beyond the point of no return (ie the point at which he still has enough fuel to fly back) is a last desperate attempt to find something - or someone - that will make his life purposeful again and justify the battle to carry on existing. Of Bingley, Hig says "he had been waiting for the End all his life... He didn't do anything that wasn't aimed at surviving", but Hig himself needs more than this; he not only values the beauty of the mountains and the vital warmth of human connection with other living beings, but needs them almost as much as he needs food and water. By the end of the book (and without giving too much away) Hig has found peace and hope and, although the ending is subtly nuanced with potential new threats that might temper Hig's incipient optimisim, overall the reader is left uplifted by man's ability to transcend his circumstances, no matter how grim.
In some ways The Dog Stars did bear out my prejudices about post-apocalypse fiction: although this book has many moments of great beauty and tenderness, there's no denying that Hig's world is a bleak and brutal one and there are a number of violent and sometimes shocking episodes. From a stylistic point of view too it isn't always an easy read: it's not so much a conventional narrative as Hig's own interior monologue and is written in short, choppy fragments and incomplete phrases as he interrupts his own train of thought and changes tack. The lack of speechmarks in dialogue likewise takes some getting used to. However, I became engrossed in Hig's story very quickly and found I got used to the stylistic quirks within a few pages. What's more, I felt the style really helped me get under Hig's skin and empathise with him. These are his unfiltered thoughts and his raw emotions, and the style lends an immediacy and directness that heighten the emotional power of Hig's story.
The blurb on the cover describes The Dog Stars as "a novel about the end of the world that makes you glad to be alive" which is a pretty big promise, but I have to say it did exactly that and I have no doubt this will be one of my top 10 books of the year for that very reason. It presents a frightening vision of a possible future for mankind that, in light of recent flu epidemics and evidence of global warming, seems all too depressingly likely, and yet Hig's quest to find something meaningful, against all the odds, in his brutal, barren world cannot fail to leave you feeling there are some seeds of hope. As Hig himself says, "Life is tenacious if you give it one bit of encouragement," and as long as there are Higs in the world it will also be bearable.