Book Corner – April 2016 (2)

powerofdog

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!

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Book Corner – June 2014 (1)

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Butcher’s Crossing – John Williams

For me, like many people, John Williams was my literary discovery for 2013. Butcher’s Crossing was his first mature novel, published in 1960, and can be loosely described as a Western. But that rather clichéd handle doesn’t do the book justice. It is not a gun fight at the OK Corral but rather an exploration of man’s relationship with and exploitation of nature.

The protagonist, Will Andrews, is a drop out from Harvard who in 1870, armed with a legacy from an uncle, travels west to find himself, pitching up at Butcher’s Crossing, an unprepossessing settlement largely dependent upon slaughtering buffalo and trading their hides. There Andrews falls in with a veteran hunter, Miller, who has found an undiscovered valley in Colorado teeming with buffalo, and wants to mount an expedition as his last hurrah. Andrews agrees to fund the enterprise.

I won’t spoil the story but the key to the book lies in the two quotations in the preface to the novel – don’t skip them in your anxiety to get into the story! The first is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature which lauds the type of spiritual communion with nature that the protagonist is seeking. The other is from Herman Melville’s Confidence Man in which the novelist warns that this sort of idealism is likely to result in being frozen to death in the prairie.

I was lucky enough to be on the Masai Mara in Kenya a few years ago when the wildebeest were migrating and I was astonished by the sight of black rivers of animals pounding the savannah. So it was relatively easy for me to relate to and visualise the enormous herds of buffalo that still could be found in the Prairies in the States. The book is powerfully written and the wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of the buffalos by the maniacal and obsessed Miller is graphically represented in a series of set piece tableaux. Williams also describes in detail the skinner’s art and Andrews’ fumbling attempts to master the tricks of the trade.

Inevitably a combination of Miller’s obsession and economic reality – the market for buffalo hides had collapsed – leads to a cataclysmic series of events that give the book a powerful ending.

Williams writes in a simple style but with a deceptive pace which hooks the reader. He is neither sentimental nor maudlin and the reader has great empathy for each of the characters, despite their many failings. Whether it is as good as Stoner is a moot point. The genre is different and, probably, it is easier to empathise with a man who late in his working career recognises that he hasn’t achieved overly much. They both stand up in their own right and whilst I marginally prefer Stoner – but it may be because like an Emerson adherent it was the first time I had glimpsed the promised land of Williams’ prose – I would heartily recommend you read them both. I can’t wait to read his third novel, Augustus!

 

Book Corner

Stoner

 

Stoner – John Williams

For a writer, whether established or aspiring, it is always inspiring to hear of a book which has lain dormant for decades after its release taken up with gusto. Of course, in terms of pecuniary rewards it is a sad state of affairs if you are dead, as, sadly, is the case with John Williams who pegged it in 1994.

Stoner, which was published in 1965, has suddenly become flavour of the month and with some money left on a book voucher (thanks, Mum) I purchased a copy for part of my holiday reading material. And, I am pleased to say, the hype, for once, is not misplaced. It is a beautiful book, superbly written with a laconic style. No word is wasted and each phrase is beautifully crafted. That said, it requires careful reading but rewards your concentration.

Despite the modern-day associations with the title, it has nothing to do with a drug-addled individual. Instead, it chronicles the mundane life of a pretty ordinary guy, the sort of guy who has lived a life but not left much of an impression on the world or his colleagues. As Williams says at the outset, Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

William Stoner, the eponymous hero, grows up in a poor and unambitious farming family and goes to college, ostensibly to study soil science, but under the tutelage of his lecturer, discovers a love for English literature and becomes an assistant professor at the local university in Missouri. He makes an ill-advised marriage, crosses his head of department, Lomax, over a matter of principle which blights his career, has an affair with a student, his daughter goes off the rails and then he dies. That’s it really but the observations and the emotional intensity of the writing make the book.

The book is really about love and trying to make sense of your role in life. It is full of insights and what can only be described as shafts of wisdom.

The death scene I found particularly moving and the final image is of Stoner’s book, perhaps his only lasting legacy to the world, slipping from his grasp.

I can’t speak too highly of this book. If there is nothing else you read in the next six months or so, make sure it is this glorious book. It rightly deserves its status as a newly discovered classic.