It's a spin on ancient novels like Robinson Crusoe: Man versus nature, stained dark with loneliness in a human-impoverished world. Hig has survived the apocalypse, a flu that killed nearly everyone, a blood disease that wiped out those who survived that, and slow climate change that took care of most of the fish, birds and mammals with which our species once shared the planet. He laments the demise of the trout nearly as much as that of his wife as he scouts the perimeter of his compound in a 1956 Cessna, dog Jasper his unflappable copilot.
An outdoors writer for National Geographic Adventure and Outside, Peter Heller has written a debut novel that competes ably with the titans in this growing genre. Imagine The Road written by Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer - bleak, sure, but also a butt-kicking romp of sure-footed men who know their way around a Sage pack fishing rod as well as they do a M203 grenade launcher.
What keeps Heller's narrative from Mad Max territory is a steadfast love of poetry, both formal (Hig expounds on Li Bai's work and on the hidden meaning of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) and informal. A choice to eschew quotation marks blurs interior dialogue and speech - as seems appropriate at the end of the world - but the effect is to flutter the gossamer fabric of meaning and memory.
A former carpenter who wincingly uses the once-grand woodwork of stately homes as kindling, Hig feeds his dog the remains of marauding human interlopers but keeps himself on a diet of stringy game and stunted victory garden goods: a man with a moral compass spinning in a maelstrom.
Still, he doggedly holds on to hope and humor, as do we as readers, all of us rewarded in the end for our fortitude.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley.
* * *
The Dog Stars
By Peter Heller
Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, $15