A long time ago, in the early 90s, Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency” unzipped the top of my head and changed how I understood the short story. The Dog Stars stands as sole heir to Johnson’s Jesus’ Son in the precise way it cracked open my understanding of what is possible in prose.

First, I love the voice. It’s colloquial and poetic at the same time. The sentences are rhythmic and sometimes halting in a way that echoes casual human speech, Biblical verse and contemporary poetry:

No more geese. A few. Last October I heard the old bleating after dusk and saw them, five against the cold bloodwashed blue over the ridge. Five all fall, I think, next April none.

I am not a reader of dystopias, per se, not a fan of fantasies about the future. Yet the post-flu-devastated world of The Dog Stars is oddly comforting and profoundly, if darkly, beautiful. The humanity that Hig, the narrator, sustains despite incredible loss—personal and planetary—kept me breathing in the face of my worst fears. “Life is tenacious if you give it one little bit of encouragement,” Hig notes.

We go on being people in a place, even when that place is an earth smoldering in fires, dying and yet also going wild with rampant life in the spaces vacated by 98% of the human population. It’s a violent, brutal world, but Hig is a writer, a lover of poetry, an acute observer of nature, a man whose un-presupposing soul sallies on. He survives his wife, his in-utero child, and pretty much everyone else he’s ever known. The desire to live cannot be underestimated: “In ten years the I’ll be done with all this. Maybe.”

More hope, especially for this writer: the act of observing, of recording, becomes a strategy for survival. Telling creates not only story but also animates life itself. In a setting that is literally dying, this is a high-stakes claim. Story as breath:

So I wonder what it is this need to tell.

To animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty. Breathe life in the telling.

Counter I guess to Bangley’s modus which is to kill just about everything that moves.

Bangley is Hig’s one and only neighbor in this post-apocalyptic world. At the start of the book, they’ve developed a strange symbiosis: “I have the plane, I am the eyes, he has the guns, he is the muscle.”

Peter Heller

Peter Heller

The book is better populated than the world, of course, because Hig’s memory brings us his wife, for example. Life before. He’s also got a dog, Jaspar. And he’s befriended, after a fashion and at a distance, a group of Mennonite families who have “the blood,” meaning a dread disease feared in the surviving population of the world.

It’s this disease that has saved the families, though individual members die off from visit to visit. A big sign warns off the vicious survivors who find their way into the valley—people more afraid of disease than of anything else in the brutal world. Hig persists in visiting the families, flying his plane to them to leave sodas from a supply he’s found in an abandoned truck. He needs people and there are few to be found.

The book is brilliantly plotted such that it can lay out its colloquial-poetic lines, one by one, and somehow it’s a page-turner. Each element—each character, each setting—is as significant to the story as it is to the bereaved world.

All of these relationships have arcs, which is to say, they evolve, with revelations and reversals that move and surprise. The world is reduced to a kind of simplicity but it is never predictable. Same for the story, the characters.

Smack dab at the midpoint—page 159 of 320 pages—Hig is “En route to Something Completely Fucking Different.” And we stumble into a love story (but delicate, complicated) and some heart-pounding, high-stakes action. All of it grounded in the gorgeous prose that keeps us humbly connected to the vivid earth and the sky above it through which Hig flies.

As a writing teacher, I encourage my students not to protect their characters. We can be reluctant to visit real trouble on the people we create, either because we want them to survive, to have it easy, or because we have lives of privilege (often attendant upon American youth) and believe plot to be artificial, overly determined or extreme in relation to life. Sooner or later, through observation, experience and, if all else fails, age, we learn that life delivers the one-two punch—and so must storytellers. Heller, who holds dual MFAs in fiction and poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has written four books of “literary non-fiction adventure,” and he takes the injunction not to protect his characters all the way. What if a man and the planet lost almost everything? And that’s only the beginning.

Elizabeth Stark is the author of a novel, Shy Girl (FSG/ Seal Press), writer/ director of two short films distributed by Frameline, and cohost of a podcast, More from this author →