I found a used paperback copy of The Dog Stars, Peter Heller’s first book, at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles many years back. Read it and loved it. It’s a dystopian-future tale about a rugged kind of future-cowboy living in what used to be Colorado after a mysterious virus has decimated humankind. Masterful stuff. Perhaps one of the best dystopian-future novels I’ve read in recent years. Next came The Painter, another remarkable book, also about another rugged fellow, a rage-filled fisherman in a particular kind of legal pickle. In both of these, though, the central protagonists are these mountain men of sorts who are also very smart, worldly, well-read. Heller’s got this intellectual cowboy thing going on.
In spite of the fact that I’d been waiting somewhat anxiously for word of Heller’s next release, and in spite of the fact that I do nerdy things like listen to podcasts and read newsletters and blogs all about the latest book releases on a very, very regular basis, I heard nothing about Celine. I simply saw it sitting on a shelf at Pegasus Books in Oakland when I stopped in there one afternoon, its simple green spine, its elegantly-scripted title.
So I bought it and set it aside for the trip to Costa Rica I was taking two weeks later with my wife, our months-delayed honeymoon. As I type this, I’m sitting at a hotel bar amidst lush gigantic-leaved vegetation during a torrential afternoon downpour with booming thunder in the distance and exotic birds chirping in the trees. I read about 250 pages of the book on the plane. I read about 40 pages last night. I finished the final forty just twenty minutes ago. It’s a remarkable book, another brilliant work from Heller, who it seems is fast becoming one of my new favorites.
In Celine’s brief prologue, a young girl loses her mother and a father and husband loses his wife. I’m not spoiling anything here; it all happens right off the bat.
There are two central characters, really. The first and most significant, for obvious, eponymous reasons, is Celine, the elegant, elderly private investigator who’s the true protagonist of the thing. She’s got emphysema and has to use an oxygen condenser occasionally throughout all the action of the novel, but, in spite of her age, her sickness, and her faux fur stoles, she’s fierce and feisty and can rapidly disassemble, reassemble, and shoot a Glock with the best of them. She and her husband Pete live in Brooklyn, it’s shortly after 9/11, which she watched happen from across the East River, and she’s maybe retired, when she’s contacted by a young woman named Gabriela, who we soon discover is the motherless, now forty-something young girl from the book’s prologue. She’s got a terrible story to tell, and she’s soliciting Celine’s help.
The other central character is Paul Lamont, the father and now ex-husband from the novel’s prologue, who, despite actually appearing only briefly in the novel, is nevertheless a central and very significant force behind all of the novel’s narrative propulsion. He’s a worldly and rugged National Geographic photographer.
Of course, the novel is peopled with a number of less central characters, the primary of which is Pete, Celine’s husband, who is a wonderful, patient man, and who is a kind of sidekick to Celine throughout her career of private investigation, and Hank, Celine’s son, who gets up to a little private investigating of his own.
I’m realizing, as I type this, that I have to be quite careful in describing the plot, or even the premise, of the book so as not to drop any hints that might spoil the thing. See, the novel, in spite of it being a serious, intellectual piece of literary fiction, is, beneath all that, an old-school mystery, with all the accompanying anxiety and suspense. It’s highly enjoyable stuff, for both its cheap pleasure and its deeper, more cerebral rewards.
The primary narrative thread of the novel concerns Celine’s current case, but much of the novel is spent in flashbacks, some to spots in Celine’s past, when she was a girl, when she got pregnant at age 15, when she nearly died in a boating accident. What I want to say is that Heller does a remarkable job of creating, right before the reader’s eyes, this beautiful, remarkable, full-bodied character, perhaps one of the most meticulously and lovingly created characters I’ve read in a long time, all while kind of tricking the reader into it. That is, you think you’re reading this edge-of-your-seat, thrilling mystery, with car chases and shootouts all set in the wilderness around Montana and Wyoming, but really you’re learning something, really you’re being slow-danced into a very serious piece of literature, with some very serious, gorgeous writing.
Final word: Peter Heller is something else. He’s a rugged, dusty American wordsmith of the highest order, who could very easily hold his own in the snobby circles of the coasts, but seems to always write right in the middle, and I, for one, am grateful. Read this book, and read all of his books.