The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

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Reviewed by Annabel

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

This novel was published in 1967, the fifth of twelve novels by the former ranch hand, and commonly thought to be his best. Savage, who died in 2003, wrote his books between 1944 and 1988 and they’ve been out of print for ages. With this new edition, Vintage are hoping that readers will rediscover Savage as they did John Williams through his sleeper hit Stoner.

Set in the world of cattle-ranching in Montana in the 1920s, The Power of the Dog opens with a challenging scene that is not for the faint-hearted. A viscerally described picture of cattle being castrated – just a couple of paragraphs, but a powerful image that haunts the narrative.

Turn the page quickly, and having been briefly introduced to the Burbank brothers, Phil who always does the castrating and George who does the roping, Savage tells us about their situation as joint owners of the biggest ranch in the valley. They’re bosses to a crew of ranch hands and cowboys, who share the bunkhouse, whereas Phil, now forty, and George not far behind, still share their boyhood room in the big house, all alone once their cook and housekeeper Mrs Lewis returns to her cabin out back. Their parents, the ‘Old Folks’, are still alive but they retired to Salt Lake City where they dabble in society.

The two brothers are complete opposites:

Phil had been the bright one, George the plodder.

… Phil, tall and angular, staring with his day-blue eyes into the distance, then at the ground close by; George stocky and imperturbable, jogging along on a stocky and imperturbable bay horse.

Phil is always doing something. If he’s not reading, he’s making complex carvings in wood, making irons at the forge, solving chess and mathematical problems, he’s a self-taught banjo player, taxidermist and more. A hard man, he disdains wearing gloves and bathing more than necessary, preferring to skinny dip in their childhood secret swimming hole. He tells stories of Bronco Henry, his cowboy mentor whom he obviously idolised, to the hands, the younger ones commenting on how he seems a ‘lonely cuss’, wondering if anyone had ever loved him – or he them?

George may be a slow learner, a quiet and placid soul with no real hobbies, but he will be the one to set the cat among the pigeons when he starts a relationship with a young widow in the nearest town. Rose’s first husband, a doctor, committed suicide leaving a son, Peter, a rather sickly and odd boy. George courts Rose who comes to look forward to the visits of this gentle man, who soon asks her to marry him, saying he’ll look after Peter and put him through school. Rose cries at his kindness.

When George brings Rose home to the ranch, the dynamics of the homestead changes overnight, it’s a good thing they’d arranged for Peter to stay in town for school. Phil takes against Rose instantly, and relentlessly taunts her, seeming determined to destroy his brother’s newfound happiness. Desperate to break and belittle George’s wife, Phil takes his bullying to a whole new level.

This is not a happy tale of happy cattle-ranchers with a happy band of cowboy hands; instead, The Power of the Dog is predecessor to the dark and brutal Western tales of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, an inspiration to Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and other cowboy stories.

Phil is frankly, an utter bastard. He’s a repressed homosexual and loner who can’t help but be jealous when George, whom he’s groomed all his life to be his inferior, breaks out from this role to try his chance at happiness. His hatred of everyone but Bronco Henry runs deep, he’d effectively forced his parents from the ranch and even they eventually wonder about him:

The Old Gent turned to her. The question he was about to ask had often been on his mind. A hundred times he had phrased the question, opened his lips to speak it. Meeting her eyes, he had until now kept silent, wondering if she might not sense in the question some criticism of herself. ‘Do you think…?’ Shocked, he suddenly realized the same question had been on her mind. It was she, then, who expressed it.

‘Do you think there might be something – something wrong – something wrong with Phil?’

The Old Gent felt hollow in his stomach, but it was a relief to get the thing out in the open. ‘If there is, it’s not your fault.’

‘Nor is it yours,’ she said, and looked at her watch.

Although Phil is psychologically a far more complex character than George, the younger brother, although lacking in social graces through inexperience and without Phil’s auto-didactic drive, does have a level of emotional intelligence that makes you feel for him. Phil instead, displays all the characteristics of a sociopath with no redeeming features that I could discern. Any reader will strongly feel that he deserves whatever you hope will be his lot!

Annie Proulx’s fascinating afterword analyses the novel’s original success and Savage’s place in the school of Montana authors. The Power of the Dog is an intense and, despite being set in wide open spaces, claustrophobic novel, a psychological and gritty family drama that deserves being reinstated as a modern classic.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog (Vintage, 2016). 978-1784870621, 304 pp., paperback.

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