Upon starting The Dog Stars, the read feels incongruous. The 1st person narration seems to step from elegant, descriptive prose to one-word sentences that pepper the page like shotgun pellets. But that's because the protagonist's feelings and moods change depending on where he is and who he is talking to. Sometimes it's you, reader, sometimes it is just to himself. There are no quotation marks for this discernment, and, as a result, the prose fast tracks from the storyteller's mind much quicker—and with more intimacy.
Hig is the head talker. His value system is about as balanced between modern man and woman as it gets. He is the post-apocalyptic Everyman wannabe; a hunter for survival but a lover of animals, of nature; he will shoot a threatening human yet also deliver precious supplies to a settlement of contagious virus victims heedless of his own peril; he's a dreamer, a lover, a gardener, a fisherman, a pilot, a widow. His telling is in the most difficult of times, as the Reaper has taken the Earth under his black robes, decimating just about everybody a decade past. "The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day"(p.8). This is a landscape of sorrow, "pretty much pouring our hearts out like water"(p.3).
The things that keep Hig sane are his 1956 Cessna 182 and his blue healer, Jasper. With plenty of gas, he scouts the 8-mile perimeter daily, then will fly around looking for nonexistent community and scroungeable items. In parody of this dismal situation, Hig gets involved early in a firefight over a Coca-Cola truck's contents, killing other rustlers for soft drinks. In contrast, Hig's sanctuary lies in the higher mountains—"I go up to breathe"(p.5)—unaffected by diseases where he can still fish, hunt deer, and look for elusive elk. With him always—in the plane or camping in the Rockies—is his last, real companion: Jasper.
Joining him earlier is a "stubborn dickhead"(p.291) named Bruce Bangley. Think of him as a geezer-aged Rambo from 1982's First Blood, although he'd never do the guilt/breakdown/give-up scene. He has brought to Hig's settlement—just a country airport hanger, really—a veritable arsenal of Glocks, ARs, sniper rifles, mortars, and even RPGs. He's "a Survivor with a capital S . . . He had been waiting for the End all his life"(p.68). He's alpha, a realist, prejudiced, supremely emotionally insulated, and "a tactician to the bone"(p.141). To him, people are a chance and a challenge to make a difficult shot. For Hig, it is almost impossible to argue this or any point without feeling he'd just as soon gut you with his Becker BK-7. Hig sleeps below a berm outside and names the constellations he doesn't know(1), while Bangley never seems to sleep and constantly works the perimeter with a .408 CheyTac sniper rifle from his upper-story window. During the day, Hig tends the gardens while Bangley cleans and re-fits weaponry and defense systems. For all the antipodal attitudes dividing them, they make quite a compatible survival pair. Hubby and Wifey-poo? Come on. Father and Son? Maybe.
With a devastating loss in the upper mountains, plus getting almost ambushed by human scum ending in a small concussion from Bangley's covering mortar fire, Hig decides it's time to seek out other situations. Overwhelmed with existential despair, he recklessly burns up his safety net by flying past his turnaround point, cutting his chances to live in an "empty, burning world"(p.288) to a notch above zero.
But instead of rumbling it out with Rictus Erectus-type characters (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015), or turning his .308 pot-shooter on himself, Big Hig discovers Eden.
The Dog Stars is a book read with the heart. You'll cry. You'll laugh. You'll feel the strength it takes to endure just about any horrid situation. In the end Hig calls it "some apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell"(p.309). Sure, there's a number of plot holes where it all seems too coincidental, but the narrative voice is strong enough to easily pave them over. For instance, when Hig is being fired upon by a guy with a shotgun, from cover Hig hangs out a quilt with the depiction of a hunter shooting at a flushed pheasant, then shows him a sign that says "I am not a pheasant"(p.174). Another time, Hig points out one of the perks of the End of Everything is Golf will be gone forever.
The book weighs on Hig's endearment that "simple beauty was still bearable", although "it was memory that threw me. I tried hard not to remember and I remembered all the time"(p.66). But, in the end, even the deepest loss finds conciliation.