In his fascinating 2008 book, “The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t — and Put Ourselves in Danger,” Canadian journalist Daniel Gardner notes that every generation fears the future and tends to idealize the past — a flawed equation on the face of it, since the past was once the future.
But fear of the future can be the catalyst for great — and not-so — art and entertainment. Consider the doom boom since the 2008 financial collapse, a wave of literally dozens of books and movies tapping into a gloomy zeitgeist.
At the top of the latest crop of apocalyptic fiction is Denver author Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars.” The novel creates a delicate balance between post-civilization wish fulfillment and the deep human need for connection that will appeal to readers of accessible literary fiction.
Toss in the quirky attraction of a book set at nearby Erie Municipal Airport, and you have easily the best end-of-the-world novel since Cormac McCarthy’s bleak 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Road.”
Hig has managed to survive a ferocious flu plague that wiped out 99 percent of the population, including his beloved wife. He now lives at the airport east of Boulder with three companions: his aging blue heeler Jasper, a 1956 Cessna — the date puts the story somewhere in the mid-2030s — and a cranky, heavily armed survivalist named Bangley. The two men have formed a mutually beneficial alliance, if not quite friendship: Hig flies a 30-mile perimeter to spot incoming human danger and Bangley brilliantly schemes how to take them out — always shooting first.
If that’s all there were to the book, you could see it as an Eastwood-esque male fantasy.
But Hig also has a heart. He pours all his love and longing into Jasper, who flies with him and accompanies him on regular walking trips into the foothills for fly fishing and hunting. When Hig hears the faint crackling of another voice while flying one day, he files it away for the time when the needs of his heart will drive him into danger on the merest promise of human contact. That day eventually arrives and he leaves behind a sentimental Bangley.
Across the Great Divide, Hig finds other people, but just as before the apocalypse, they pose both danger and possibility. He takes enormous risks on the thin promise of connection and eventually breaks through to an older man and his daughter. A lesser writer would have taken that situation in all-too-obvious directions, but the author allows Cima to become a full-fledged character rather than a prop.
Heller, a contributing editor at Outside magazine, writes like a kind of latter-day Hemingway or McCarthy. Spare prose leaves vast open spaces for melancholy, and the action veers from deliberately mundane to suddenly harrowing. Harshly casual decisions to eliminate potential intruders are juxtaposed with episodes of truly tender feeling. If that sounds like combat, it should.
Unlike many lesser examples of the post-apocalypse species, “The Dog Stars” is ultimately about relationships. Bangley is hard to like — “If you aren’t just a little light in the loafers, I’m a Jew,” he tells Hig — but when people must depend on each other, they can’t help but care. Heller has said Jasper is the hero of the story, but the dog does nothing heroic — except provide loyalty and receive Hig’s love. In the end, it is Jasper who propels Hig into his reckless search for human connection. Even in an empty world — perhaps especially — love and connection are what matter most.
“The Dog Stars” owes much to “The Road.” Both tell the story of heartbroken men tending their hearts’ fires in a shattered and ruthless world. Our current uncertainties can’t hold a candle to nuclear war or a devastating plague, but in the end, the remedy for our fears remains the same: love and connection.