RA Crossroads: What To Read after Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column, Hig and his dog lead me down a winding path.


Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars. Knopf. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780307959942. $24.95.
In Heller’s debut novel, Hig, a man who has lost everything but his dog, speaks to readers in the blunt, choppy prose of his postapocalyptic world. A flu pandemic has killed most of the humans on earth, including Hig’s wife, and he survives on the open ground of a small airfield along with one man, a barely sane survivalist named Bangley. What makes Heller’s novel so extraordinary is that those facts are the least important of the novel. That Hig is a pilot and a fisherman and that he loves his dog are facts far more resonant. As Hig begins to describe the fishing that has been lost as the trout and the carp slowly fade away, his story becomes elegiac, and as he describes flying, his story becomes a graceful and lyrical arc. While Hig’s story is now one of dying children and the bloody killing field he and Bangley have created defending their airstrip, it is also slyly funny, philosophical, and filled with a rough and broken charm. This engrossing and measured novel, which is reflective rather than adrenaline-filled and suggests a landscape of wrecked beauty, is, surprisingly a book of solace and hope.


McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage. 2007. 304p. ISBN 9780307387899. pap. $15.
For readers who want more postapocalyptic details set in a raw and haunting frame, suggest this grim yet bluntly lyrical novel of a ruined America and a father and son slowly marching toward the sea, hoping for something neither even knows how to name. While more harrowing than Heller, and far more bleak, the two works share a core of loss, connection, and the sustaining power of love. McCarthy’s style nicely complements Heller’s as each places the reader deep into the psyche of the characters and holds them there with language‚ whether plain or adorned‚ that gets to the heart of the matter at hand: how to keep going in a world that is gone. With its engrossing pacing, particular stylistic approach, and reflective stance, The Road is a good match for Heller. It offers a detailed picture of what Bangley fears is coming and the nightmares Hig escapes as he fishes and flies with his dog.

Bell, Alden. The Reapers Are the Angels. Holt. 2010. 240p. ISBN 9780805092431. pap. $15.
Fifteen-year-old Temple has lived her entire life in the tattered remains of America, which is full of zombies and people who have lost all hold on their humanity. She, however, has somehow remained convinced of the beauty and mystery of life and knows that events are unfolding according to a plan in exactly the way they should. Bell’s novel is a quiet and interior work, strongly characterized and written in a voice, like Hig’s, that lingers long after the last haunting line. While there is action and zombie gore in this book, just as Heller’s contains the rust-stained ground of Bangley’s killing field, the heart of the Bell’s novel is not an adrenaline-filled journey, but rather an exploration of Temple and her world. Hig and Bangley would both approve of Temple, and their story makes a good read-alike for Temple’s since the books share an intimate and philosophical sensibility, engrossing pacing, and poetic style.

Brockmeier, Kevin. The Brief History of the Dead. Vintage. 2007. 272p. ISBN 9781400095957. pap. $15.
Brockmeier’s novel opens with a tale of a man who traveled through the desert to arrive in the City. Readers quickly learn that the man is dead, that he is telling his story to the dead, and that everyone in the City he now inhabits is dead. Connected to this City, but inhabiting a very real Earth, is Laura Byrd, a wildlife researcher stationed near the South Pole. She is trapped and alone in the cold, and cannot leave because of the virus that has swept around the planet. Lingering attempts to report the news reach her, and she knows that humans are dying by the millions. Chapters alternate between the City and Laura struggling through the frozen world of Antarctica, hoping to find other survivors. Heller’s and Brockmeier’s books nicely echo one another because they share graceful writing, a compelling pace, stress placed on the isolation that comes from stunning loss, a blend of reflection and escape into memory, and a strong survivalist thread.

Rash, Ron. Waking. Hub City. 2011. 74p. ISBN 9781891885846 . $14.95.
Rash, like Hig, is a man who has a thing or two to say about trout. He also has something to say about the land around him and our place within it. In these beautiful and rich poems he explores a Southern landscape so evocatively that lines could be seamlessly picked up and dropped into Hig’s observations. While poetry might seem an odd next place to go after reading postapocalyptic fiction, Rash’s work shares Heller’s sensibility, focus, and sense of solace. When readers finish his most recent collection of poems (the first such collection in close to a decade) they’re left with the same feeling Heller creates, that something has been washed clean.


Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It. University of Chicago Press. 2001. 239p. ISBN 9780226500669. pap. $12.
Hig, like the narrator in Maclean’s story, is sustained by the streams and rivers he has fished, ties he has made, and fish he has caught. For readers who are loath to leave the world of fishing that so marks Hig’s time in the first half of the novel, suggest this work that also traces the connection between life, fishing, and the beauty of the world. The story centers on Norman and his troubled brother Paul. Norman knows, as Hig also believes, that sometimes all one needs is cold water pushing against your legs as you cast your line. Philosophical and full of details of fishing and casting techniques, fans of Heller will feel that he has spent time in Maclean’s world‚ and that Hig has too.

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine De. Wind, Sand and Stars. Mariner. 2002. 240p. ISBN 9780156027496. pap. $13.95.
There is a short section in Heller’s novel where Hig describes the work of test pilots flying the runs that are used to report an airplane’s outer limits. At that point in the novel, flying becomes not just something Hig does, but something Hig is. Flying, like fishing, is a critical thematic element of the novel, and readers who enjoy Hig’s lyrical yet technical thinking, as well as his love of flight, will find great pleasure in Saint-Exupéry’s nonfiction masterwork. This is a classic of adventure writing, a work that is at once poetic, philosophical, and exciting. Saint-Exupéry details his routes flying mail over dangerous skies in Africa and South America as well as his crash in the Sahara, a disaster he barely survives.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net


  1. Mary Cardwell says:

    What about the book “Zone One” by Colson Whitehead as a read -around/read alike?

    • Neal says:

      Hi Mary,

      I thought about the Whitehead and almost included it. I think it would work well for many readers. It focuses more on direct cultural commentary than Heller and is much darker in its humor, but there are some nice alignments between the two as well. I would especially think readers of both authors would appreciate the stress on literary style.