The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

(Headline $29.99)

It's 20 years in the future. The apocalypse has come in the shape of a mutant virus. Survivors bunker down in armed bands and encampments, shooting anyone who comes into view. So far, so cliched.

Two of those survivors dominate the story. Bangley carries a gun and a grudge. Hig flies a 1956 Cessna, "really a beaut", using it first to scout for Bangley, who then picks off any visitors from his sniper's tower.


Hig also is no boy scout. He's joined in the shootings. In a world also ravaged by climate change, where the tiger, the elephant, the whale are all gone, and the last trout has swum upstream, searching for cooler water, he eschews cannibalism, but feeds human corpses to his dog.

But unlike Bangley, he doesn't revel in the killing. He persists in keeping contact with a nearby and not altogether convincing group of Mennonites, who may still be disease carriers. And a half-heard radio message, plus the death of a nine-year-old boy, eventually start him on a journey that he hopes will take him beyond mere survival.

It's a journey that doesn't lead to any idyll or easy answers, but it begins an arduous progress towards redemption and regeneration, in which characters are unpeeled layer by layer. Green patches in the forest and in Hig's own life begin to grow; we end with that paradoxical thing, a post-apocalyptic novel that looks on the bright side.

Heller writes sparely, sometimes stunningly, in brief bursts of memory and thought that crackle with intensity. He takes risks, stumbles occasionally (Hig's memories of his wife range from mawkish to maudlin), but evokes the essence of things marvellously. Almost every action - changing oil, planting crops, watching a bear chasing down deer - is rendered with utter authenticity.

Through the lurid blood-letting, events build slowly, broodingly. Secrets and truths are uncovered one by one. The story grows like a dark crystal.

It's a remarkable narrative both in conception and execution. Comparisons with Cormac McCarthy's wonderful, terrifying The Road are inevitable. Both are books which make you sit very quietly for some time afterwards.

One unsettling caveat. Weapons are worshipped. Rifles, handguns, grenade-launchers are catalogued and crooned over. We hear about their calibre, range, killing power.

Characters are commended for their ability to handle them. How very ... American.


But as I say, a remarkable novel. And it's the author's first. Let's just hope it doesn't get endorsed by the NRA.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.