Review of “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller

Reviving a blog is always a bit of a challenge: does consistency in theme or style really matter if the blog hasn’t been used in years?  I’ve decided that the most important factor is having something worth sharing, whether or not it fits with the blog’s history, and the first work of fiction I’ve read in years is something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the last page.

Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was a “hot” title, coming in to our library system with patron requests already piling up.  I can honestly say I do not know this author, and so do not know if it was the author or the topic of the book that created the demand.  The title was intriguing to me because I wondered if there might be some aspect of astronomy to the story.  Short answer: not enough.

This is a story about living in a post-Apocalyptic Earth, not so much with the fashionable zombie motif, but certainly with the “every man for himself” mentality we all expect civilization to devolve into once some cataclysm strikes.  In this book, it is brought on by a pandemic — a flu — and our narrator is a mostly-intact survivor of this scourge.

The brain damage resulting from an extended fever of 105 is the explanation for the narrator’s disjointedly fragmented sentences and, presumably, for the author’s complete failure to obey traditional rules of punctuation.  Stylish as that might be, I found it to be my second-greatest disappointment with the book.  The author knows who has spoken which line, but the reader does not, so the “he said” or “she said” notes can really help a great deal in watching a story develop.  I hated that I had to stop and re-read dialogue passages to get a clear sense of who (might have) said what.  It interrupts the story, and I feel that is never a good thing.

In a book such as The Dog Stars, the author has to create a new reality in which the story will take place.  The reader needs to be put there and kept there, in that new reality, in order to have the experience.  If the writing makes the reader stumble and re-read for clarity, that means the reader has been tossed out of the story, back into his or her own reality.  I would prefer that my fiction be presented well enough to engross me, to put me into the new world and let me stay there with the characters and see what transpires.  Punctuation, properly employed, can allow that to happen.  And while breaking the rules can help to create an effect — in this case, perhaps, to show us the narrator’s disjointed thinking — the fragmented sentences and tangential directions achieved that well enough.  Proper punctuation would have been a kindness to the readers that allowed us to stay in the story, stay with the character.

That said, the dystopia Heller created was not the best I’ve encountered.  In some ways, it was a pale shadow of Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Babylon: we encountered pockets of near-normalcy, adjusted to the dangerous new times in both books.  However, Frank gave us many examples of how the survivors reacted to the new reality, how they learned to cope, and how they dealt with those who could not.  Heller had a lot of the solutions already figured out, told us how it was, and expected us to be fine with that.  Perhaps this suited some readers, but I’ve been a science fiction fan for decades, and my favorite authors have respected my curiosity about the survival aspects — the science and engineering tidbits — that help to bring me into the new world.  Anyone who has read Robert Silverberg’s expansion on Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, David Brin’s The Postman, the aforementioned Alas, Babylon, or even Rober C. O”Brien’s Z is for Zachariah — a YA book! — will be disappointed with Heller’s weak effort here.

There were stars, yes, and there was a dog.   For all the role this dog, Jasper, had, I’d say this could have been the last-ever episode of Lassie.  “Gee, I really liked Jasper and how he’d growl and warn me about threats even though he was stone-deaf and really no help at all but I made doggy treats out of the people we killed and that made him happy so I was sad when he died.”  There you have it, as if it were quoted from the book — which it wasn’t, but the punctuation was about right.

Would I recommend The Dog Stars?  No.  Perhaps Peter Heller has better books out there, so I will try to read something else he’s written before I decide he’s just not an author I can enjoy, but this book would not make me a fan of his.  However, it is worth noting that, although I did not like the story, it still left me thinking about it, if only in terms of how I might have written it myself.  And, any book that gets the reader thinking can’t be all bad.

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13 Comments

  1. Nancy Spivey said,

    October 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Wow. Completely different experience here. I loved this book, mostly because it made me think of how I would react, what I would do. The disjointedness that bothered you so much did not really bother me; I took it for what it was: the disjointedness of the narrator’s thoughts. For days afterwards, I went to sleep at night thinking of how I would handle some of these situations, and if I could survive it at all.

    I must add, though, that your review is beautifully written, and your examples do support your opinions. I just reacted differently.

    • shadodottir said,

      October 8, 2012 at 10:55 pm

      Nancy, the problem with the book, in that light, is that you have to already have a specialized skill before being faced with this scenario. The narrator is a pilot, and experienced, with all his maps and manuals handy. And he happens to find his way safely to an airport before the book even begins. It just doesn’t feel like we are given a chance to feel the fear we should feel for this new world. We encounter about a dozen bad folks, quickly dispatched, and overall they felt like they were never really threats. Heller just didn’t conjure a scary world, for me.

  2. October 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I like the idea of reflecting the narrator’s state of mind through technical aspects of his or her writing, but you are perfectly right that if the eccentricities get to the point where they distract or even confuse the reader, the narrative flow is broken, immersion in the fictional reality is undermined, and the whole purpose is of course defeated. This is similar to the problem of reflecting dialect, I think: the trick is showing just enough to paint the right impressionistic picture, but not too much. A linguistically accurate transcription would be the end of the story – it would take center stage and break the spell even for those readers who are nerdy enough to follow it and don’t throw the book away in exasperation.

    • shadodottir said,

      October 9, 2012 at 12:02 am

      Overall, Heller watered down the entire story, in my opinion. There was rich material there, even if it has been done before. Every author can tell a story anew, so long as he tells it well, but I could pick out a better book for nearly every facet of the situation.

      I’m hoping Heller has better books out there — I’d like to know what generated all the reader-demand for this one.

  3. October 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I love the post-Apocalyptic and I’ve written a few stories there myself. Most of it has been done before, with different actors playing the same parts that were written, and expected, before.

    I’ve never tried the let’s screw up the writing thing to get a feel for someone’s thoughts. Twain did a remarkable job of keeping his writing clean while having characters who spoke broken English.

    It’s not easy but it sure as hell is worth the effort if you like your readers at all.

    I’m glad that sort of thing bothers you. It doesn’t bother enough people, clearly.

    • shadodottir said,

      October 9, 2012 at 12:09 am

      Mike, I’m a persnickety reader. The times where “free verse” writing has worked, in my opinion, is where the narrator is a young student, faced with a difficult story to tell and unused to writing things out — there are several powerful YA books written in that fashion, and they’re superb.

      That said, the excuse that this narrator’s brain was cooked does not jive with being so very good at everything else he does in the course of the book, and in the meantime it derails the story altogether. There were important conversations that I had to re-read several times in order to appreciate what was established between the characters, and by the time I got through parsing it all, I was no longer impressed.

  4. October 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Or put much more succinctly; if he couldn’t write well enough to get his message across did he think writing poorly would be better?

  5. Ina said,

    October 9, 2012 at 10:43 am

    I, too, am enthralled with post-apocalyptic scenarios. The thought of writing like a fried brain piques my interest, but I’d probably get annoyed with it, also, if I had to go back and re-read just to figure out the train of the author’s thoughts.

    You did a great job with this review. I love this type of book, but I’m not sure I have the patience to try to piece the story together in the way you describe. I just want to be taken away for a few hours by a novel. This almost sounds like assigned reading.

    • Nancy Spivey said,

      October 10, 2012 at 12:23 am

      Ina, I suggest you give it a try. This was one of my favorite books of the year.

      • Ina said,

        October 10, 2012 at 12:31 am

        I put it on my TBR note. I’ll have to ask my ultra book guru, Kris, if she’s read it and what she thought.

      • shadodottir said,

        January 13, 2013 at 8:57 pm

        Nancy, have you read other books by this author? And, have you read other dystopian novels? I’d be very interested in your thoughts and comparisons.

  6. Jake bob said,

    January 10, 2013 at 12:28 am

    How many of you bloggers have had the guts to commit to writing a book. I enjoyed it.

    • shadodottir said,

      January 11, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed The Dog Stars — I know a lot of folks did, because there were a lot of “holds” on this title at our library.


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