We're in the middle of a golden age (if that's the right term for it) of doomsday narratives. In the multiplex (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) and the art house (Melancholia), on television (The Walking Dead) and in fiction (The Road, The Passage), the world is regularly being smashed by asteroids, ravaged by viruses and overrun by zombies. Pop culture's embrace of end times has become, if not casual, then matter-of-fact. The apocalypse is a given; get over it already.
Getting over it already is the challenge facing Hig, the narrator of The Dog Stars, Peter Heller's crackerjack new novel set a decade or so after an epidemic wiped out 99 percent of the U.S. population. With its soulful hero, macabre villains, tender (if thin) love story and action scenes staggered at perfectly spaced intervals, the story unfolds with the vigor of the film it will undoubtedly become. But it also succeeds as a dark, poetic and funny novel in its own right.
Once upon a time Hig was a happily married Denver contractor who watched Avatar, ate sushi and loved trout fishing. Now he lives in a barricaded compound of abandoned McMansions with his dog and a cynical old codger named Bangley. Hig and Bangley spend their days fortifying this surreal redoubt against the bands of thugs who wear necklaces of dried vaginas and roam the land, raping and slaughtering. In the wake of the epidemic, as Hig puts it, "The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice." Indeed, the fiends of The Dog Stars might have wandered over from the anarchic ashland of The Road. Contemporary visions of futuristic hell no longer involve an all-powerful Big Brother, but something like its opposite: the barbarian takeover that follows the collapse of centralized power.
Hig, though, is Nice. He can't quite give up his dreams of a better world, of brotherhood, of natural beauty, of grace. A failed poet, on his forays into the wilderness to hunt for deer, his voice becomes lyrical: "The moss I wonder how old. It is dry and light to the touch, almost crumbly, but in the trees it moves like sad pennants." Heller breaks his sentences into jarring fragments, a technique that doesn't seem essential to the story, but doesn't get in the way of it either.
And just when you've had about enough of watching Hig fish and ruminate on the kingfishers and the loveliness of the mountain streams ("the current was silver and black twining, like mercury and oil"), Heller sends him into battle against club-wielding brutes in leather biker vests. The marriage of bucolic idylls and Road Warrior-style combat is sometimes uneasy, but ultimately works: The idylls make you care about the outcome of the combat.
The latter half of the novel describes Hig's journey toward spiritual regeneration. There are some lively segments here (specifically, the discovery of a pair of elderly serial killers), a less-than-realistic love story (from 300 feet away, Hig can tell that a woman has violet eyes?) and some bad boilerplate sex scenes ("She keened and I exploded"). But by this time you're all in with Hig, rooting for his happiness. That his story is not in the end depressing may be the most disturbing part of this novel. In fact, at times, the destruction of civilization seems to have given Hig the chance to live more richly in the present, to feel grace more acutely, to sleep outdoors and gaze up at the stars in this purged, rejuvenated universe. It is frightening to face up to the apocalypse. It's perhaps even more frightening when we get past that and start seeing its upside.