The Power Of The Dog – Thomas Savage
The phenomenal success caused by the rediscovery of John Williams’ Stoner has prompted some publishers to root around the back catalogues to find a sadly underrated and forgotten novel which with a bit of a marketing heft could enjoy a renaissance. Savage’s The Power of the Dog, published in 1967 and according to Annie Proulx’s sympathetic afterword selling barely a thousand copies, is the latest to receive this treatment.
Savage’s novel, not to be confused with Ellen Dryden’s play of the same name, is ultimately a story of revenge. Set on a ranch in Montana in 1924 and 1925 run by the odd Burbank brothers, Phil and George, who have slept in the same bedroom for 40 years, their domestic idyll is disrupted when the unadventurous George woos and weds a woman, Rose, whose previous husband had topped himself, and moves her and her effeminate son, Peter, into the ranch.
Phil is appalled by this turn of events and systematically seeks to destroy Rose and Peter, driving Rose, who feels trapped in a cold, silent environment with nothing to do, to drink. In a fine and understated climax Peter takes his anthracoid revenge.
Phil is a masterpiece of characterisation. He is bright and intelligent, can pretty much turn his hand to anything and keen to preserve the status quo. Bu there is a darker side to him. He is a bully with a sadistic streak and a homophobe. His character is set in the opening paragraph of the book, a graphic description of the castration of calves, which drips in his sadistic delight in performing the operation but which also gives a clue to his ultimate downfall when he nicks himself. Savage really gets under his character’s skin, allowing the reader to understand the psyche of the main protagonist, the dog of the title taken from a psalm. The irony, of course, is that Phil himself is a repressed homosexual who clearly had a thing for his hero Bronco Henry and who plans to make a move on the “sissy boy” Peter.
Savage’s style is economical and the writing is taut, each word carefully considered and rarely any unnecessary padding. The plot moves apace but in a peaceful and calming way. Perspectives switch as Savage allows each of his characters to take control of the narrative and express their point of view. The author is good at painting a picture of the diurnal rhythm of a ranch, its sense of order, the daily routines, the long hours of downtime when idle hands have nothing else to do but brood. So regular is the daily pattern of life that the shock of introducing a wife into it is even more traumatic.
This is Savage’s fifth novel – he went on to publish thirteen – and it is hard to tell why other than in the minds of the critics it was not successful. Perhaps the brutality of the opening paragraph and the subject matter of homosexuality, repressed or otherwise, was too racy for the time. What we have though is a beautiful and at the same time brutal psychological drama, a forerunner, perhaps, to Proulx’s own Brokeback Mountain. A wonderful book but Stoner it is not.
As a final comment I was pleased that Proulx’s comments appeared as an Afterword. Too often I find Forewords give the story away or, worst still, a lazy contributor laces their comments with so many quotations you end up reading the book twice. That may just be me, though!