The Power of The Dog
Frances Macmillan, Senior Editor, Vintage Classics makes a compelling case for why The Power of the Dog is a book everyone should read
The New York Times said of this author ‘if there were justice in the literary marketplace, one or another of Thomas Savage’s novels would have been topping bestseller lists for the past 30 years’. In her afterword to The Power of the Dog, Annie Proulx calls this novel ‘a work of literary art’. In the corners of the internet people are whispering about Thomas Savage and this book in particular, and when those whisperings reached us at Vintage Classics, via the writer Nicholas Shakespeare, we read the book and snapped it up.
It’s the story of Phil and George, who own a prosperous ranch in lonely, windswept 1920s Montana. It’s a landscape familiar to fans of Westerns, and from a distance Phil looks like a cowboy hero – good-looking, tough as cow hide, sharp as a whip, a great reader and expert chess player, fond of storytelling. He’s also a vicious, scheming sadist, a psychopathic bully with a gift for zeroing in on someone’s weak spot, and pressing it until they break. His brother George is solid, quiet, unimaginative and uncomplaining, and surprises everyone by marrying the timid widow Rose. Furious at his brother’s rebellion and simultaneously disgusted and baffled by this new relationship, Phil begins an inexorable, subtle campaign to destroy Rose.
This novel positively seethes, with finely controlled tension worthy of Hitchcock, with repressed sensuality, with a thousand things left unsaid. Its powerfully intense atmosphere culminates in a deft and stunning twist, which it would be criminal to reveal here – you’ll just have to read it.
It’s not clear why, with all these virtues, The Power of the Dog isn’t better known. Perhaps, as the Boston Globe suggested, when it was first published in the US in 1967 readers were ‘spooked’ by the subject matter. Most reviewers at the time avoided mention of Phil’s repressed homosexuality – though never explicitly stated, it’s made very clear this is at the root of Phil’s pathological hatred of ‘sissys’ – at this time, any homoeroticism in the Western genre was kept firmly under the surface. But this wasn’t the only reason that contemporary US reviewers also felt wrong-footed and unsure where to place The Power of the Dog. It’s a book without heroes, despite its pitch-perfect evocation of the wild frontier where some of the most beloved of American heroes were forged. It was first published a few years after the unexpected success of A Fistful of Dollars and the rise of Spaghetti Westerns, and the character of Phil – laconic, shabby, supremely capable – might have seemed a discomforting subversion of Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
Plus, the storytelling has elements which seem to derive from the horror genre – a feeling of disquiet born from things happening off-screen, almost out of the corner of the eye; a sense of being trapped; and not least in the portrayal of Peter, Rose’s precocious son, who by the end of the book is probably a more frightening character than the tyrant Phil. Any unease with the narrative is heightened when you understand that Savage was using it to exorcise some of his own demons, recreating and eviscerating in print a hated figure from his childhood (I won’t say more, but the full details are in Annie Proulx’s fascinating afterword).
Then, just as you might be believing this tale is entirely composed of the bitter and hard-bitten, Savage shows another subtle shade to the narrative, leavening the tension with moments of tenderness, between George and Rose or between George and Phil’s parents (the Old Gent and the Old Lady).
Or maybe readers have always struggled with the novel’s visceral (…ahem…) first paragraph. But please don’t let it put you off. Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and the subsequent film, Cormac McCarthy’s masterpieces and even Quentin Tarantino all have helped to bust open any taboos that may have hampered The Power of the Dog’s reception in the past. The time is right for readers to discover its brilliance and its many surprises.
Read it and pass it on.
Phil and George are brothers, more than partners, joint owners of the biggest ranch in their Montana valley. Phil is the bright one, George the plodder. Phil is a brilliant chess player, a voracious reader, an eloquent storyteller; George learns slowly, and devotes himself to the business. Phil is a sadist; George has a gentle, loving soul.