Peter Heller, The Dog Stars
As with The Road, we have a (mainly) homosocial text in The Dog Stars.
Further, as with The Road, we have a text in which, for a large portion of the narrative, the response to the event is that everyone who is not within the group (and once more our group is a dyad of two males) is a dangerous enemy who must be killed. And notice that, mainly, we are meant to see this as the correct response. That is, the text (mostly) does not criticize Bruce Bangley or his violent ways.
Rather, the narrative supports Bangley’s violence, showing us with several incidents that his response is correct – we have the men who try to kill Hig at the tractor trailer full of soda, one of whom turns out to be wearing a truly appalling necklace (maybe not cannibals, exactly, but still); and we have the several groups who attack Hig and Bangley at the airport, who might well intend to kill them. Who knows, since Hig and Bangley shoot them down before we can find out – although one group at least certainly seems bent on slaughter.
On the other hand, unlike in McCarthy’s The Road, Peter Heller introduces at least some moral ambiguity into his narrative, first with the tale of the very young and starving girl that Bangley shoots down, who as far as Hig can tell meant no one any harm; and then with the young boy – nine years old – killed with the group of men approaching the house. This boy is the same age Hig’s own son would have been.
In a way, Hig knows, he has killed his own son. That is, if he had been out on the road, trying to find a safe haven, and his son had been with him, he might have been just like this group of men: and Bangley would have shot him and his son down, just like this.
Further, Heller gives us the Mennonites, whom Bangley wants to kill, or at least let die. Hig keeps visiting them, and bringing them food, and repairing their technology.
Finally, after Jasper’s death, Hig leaves the dyad relationship of himself and Bangley – which is a sterile, dead-end, and doomed community – and sets out to at least try to find a new community. He has heard, years before, someone calling out from the Grand Junction Airport. He flies off to try to find this person, hoping it will be a community he can join with.
We can’t miss that this trip occurs after Jasper dies – the dog’s death matters. Previous to the death of his dog, Hig is living in a kind of limbo, in which he is a perpetual adolescent, content to let Bangley make the rules and run their “family.” He knows that their world, as Bangley visualizes it, is a sterile and dead-end world. Bangley, as he notes, does nothing that isn’t aimed at surviving day-to-day. He doesn’t plan for the future, in other words. And for years Hig too is content with this.
This is why he doesn’t drive the trailer full of soda back to their airport; this is why he doesn’t follow up on the message from Grand Junction sooner. He’s living in a perpetual present.
But with Jasper’s death, Hig is jarred into the realization of his own mortality.
As it develops, of course, the Grand Junction message is a trap. It too vindicates Bangley’s worldview (and Pops, once we meet Pops). But before Hig reaches Grand Junction, he finds the Edenic little canyon where Cima and Pops have been surviving since the plague.
Pops, of course, is just like Bangley. It’s fitting that when Hig and Cima return to the airport, Pops moves in with Bangley. J
At the end of novel, as with the end of The Road, we are left with an ambiguous kind of hope. The planet is still warming up; bad guys are still roving the world killing everyone for no apparent reason except that’s what bad guys do; everyone including Cima is still sick; most of the fish and animals are dying; but on the other hand, Cima thinks she might know how to cure the blood disease, and some animals are surviving; and there are planes flying again, indicating that somewhere civilization has survived.
One other note: The male gaze in this book. Notice that through the first half of the novel, the only women are in the dead past or else anonymous (the Mennonite mothers, the slaughtered girl). Bangley’s “women” are pornographic images stuck to his walls. Given that Bangley only relates to the world through his male gaze (that is, he treats everyone, even Hig, like an object, like a tool for his use), this might be less misogyny on Heller’s part than a character comment.
Still, we do want to notice that, mostly, women in this book exist as adjuncts to men – as objects created for men’s use. It’s true that Cima is a doctor. But notice how important it is, for the narrative, that she is also a beautiful doctor. Heller goes to some lengths to set up a scene in which we can see her naked. He also goes to some lengths to make it clear that in this world women exist only to be raped and killed. (Somehow in these terribly realistic End of the World narratives, men are never at a risk of being raped. Why is that, do you suppose?)