Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review of The Dog Stars

Peter Heller is a great writer, plain and simple. Storyteller and poet, he really digs in to the emotional landscape of his characters. He knows what motivates them, and helps the reader to experience them from the inside. Almost to an overwhelming degree.

For those who don’t know Peter Heller, he writes very stream-of-consciousness, which quickly spirals into stream-of-dialogue, stream-of-grammar, and stream-of-whatever-the-Heller-feels-like-writing-at-the-time. His style does take some getting used to, but over all I like it. Those who have achieved mastery of the English language, and truly understand it, have a right and a duty to smash it too pulp and build something new from the ruin. Language is always being reinvented unconsciously, so why shouldn’t the masters reinvent it consciously? This is what poetic license has always represented in my mind—playing with language—and I love when prose is proven a malleable thing, like any other human creation.

There are obvious comparisons being made between this book and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and I have to admit that I was wondering if reading this would feel redundant, but there were enough differences to make me happy I read it. The primary difference, other than a more dynamic flexibility in literary style and emotional exuberance, is the way the world looks through Hig’s eyes. He’s much more optimistic, he still struggles morally (McCarthy’s character’s—the father’s—orientation to the world is pretty-much mineralized into deeply-set convictions and instinctual reflexes by environmental hopelessness), he is looking for new love, he still has conversations with himself (the internal dialogue of McCarthy’s man is minimal and all but smothered by anguish), and he is still able to connect with nature (though, to be fair, the nuclear holocaust of McCarthy’s world—versus the flu epidemic and global warming of Heller’s planet—leaves a lot less flowers to stop and smell). This doesn’t mean that I liked Heller’s character better, but I was happy for a change from McCarthy’s protagonist’s motives which stemmed mostly from animalistic survival and procreative instinct which included his son’s welfare. 

HOWEVER, while I like most of what I read from Heller, I was absolutely turned off by Heller’s sex scenes. I’ll admit that I generally don’t relish hearing other people—especially guys—talk about their latest sexual capers, but Heller’s description of Hig’s sexual encounters and his poetic descriptions of hard-ons, oral sex, and orgasms seemed to be an interesting—not really—infusion of erotic romance and voluptuous aesthetics into an otherwise rugged, elementally tempering narrative. Not to say that there shouldn’t have been a development or flowering of the finer sensibilities—intellectual, emotional, and sexual—because I do believe that was part of the redeeming value of Heller’s more aesthetic and emotive style, but the writer’s insistence on fully exposing the more euphoric organ-play of two of his characters seemed a bit too tender and over-exposed. I’m sure we all have our spectrum of how much we want to hear about each other’s most intimate moments, but I’m of the opinion that, in this case, the more graphic opening of the carnal delicacies, in a setting as vicious, hostile, and unforgiving as this story, feels uncalculated and gratuitous. Or maybe it felt mostly like poor timing. (This coming from a guy –me—who has read 50 Shades and recognizes that erotica has a place in all world literature, even in the Bible). I wouldn’t have minded an outline or an allusion to the encounters, but full-on play-by-plays of giggling, licking, fingering, ejaculating…. c’mon! It’s like someone recounting their night of crazy sex in sensuous detail over donuts and coffee. We get it, you’re a horn-dog! Is it too much to ask NOT to have vicarious story-sex right now?!

Moving on.

Hig’s inner conflict is between surviving, and loving. His dubious friend, Bangley, represents an iron-clad fortress into which no one walks without being first invited. He shoots first then asks questions. Hig wonders about the consequences of this kind of life.  “”Never ever negotiate. You are negotiating your own death…[but] Follow Bangley’s belief to its end, and you get a ringing solitude…the cold stars.” He waffles between the extremes of defense and vulnerability, and this really makes the story because it forces readers to look inside themselves at a similar struggle between love and vulnerability. The real complication comes when Hig still has to live and make decisions, regardless of whether or not he has come to a firm decision.

“Well, anyway Hig, whether you are a good man or a bad man, or just a pretty good man in a fucked up world, you are going to have to land the Beast first. Put her down in a rolling rocky county with one road that is no longer a road.”

Don’t we all, Hig, don’t we all.

Best line from the book: “We should have all paid more attention to the Left Side [of the Bible] I am thinking now. The Wrong Side, the Side Where Shit Goes Really, Really Wrong.”

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