Monday, March 21, 2022

The Power of the Dog, a novel by Thomas Savage

This 1967 novel, recently made into a film, is truly Western, and if you don’t know what that means, this is a good place to start. Writers such as Wallace Stegner, Ernest Hemingway, Annie Proulx, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck are quintessentially Western – and so is Thomas Savage. He draws heavily on personal experience, growing up in Idaho and Montana on ranches, observing the predominance of landscape and weather to the experiences of people living there. 

For The Power of the Dog, he creates a family, the Burbanks, wealthy cattle ranchers in Montana. The elder Burbank, whom they call The Old Gent, has retired with his wife, the Old Lady, to a hotel in Salt Lake City to escape the harsh winters and isolation of the ranch. In 1925, brothers Phil, now forty, and George, thirty-eight, are marking their twenty-fifth year of running the operation, dividing duties and still sharing their childhood bedroom. 

But they are as different as two men can be: Phil is smart, shrewd, observant, skilled – and mean. All his powers he turns to crafting the perfect cutting remark, whether to a ranch-hand late for breakfast or to any non-white person daring to elevate themselves to equal status: Jews, Indians, Mexicans, he despises them. George, on the other hand, is a little dense, a plodder, but sociable and reflexively kind, giving others the benefit of the doubt. 

Phil manages the ranch hands, the cattle, the haying operation. While he likes to spend evenings in the bunkhouse, he sets himself above the cowboys, and they know it. Otherwise, he is isolated, answering to no one, going off alone, keeping his thoughts to himself. When George marries, Phil considers the woman unsuitable, and torments her with the intention of driving her off. She is a widow with a bright effeminate teenage son, another target for Phil’s scorn and derision. 

I won’t say more about the story, just observe how insightfully written it is: "[George] knew all there was to know about love, that it’s the delight of being in the presence of the loved one.” and “Doors, doors, doors, doors; five outside doors in the house, and [Rose] knew the sound of the opening and closing of each one.” 

Phil is not without humor – he muses on parties the Old Folks hosted, always awkward affairs with guests terrified lest they blunder socially, the conversation dominated by some subject happened upon then worried to death till it was time to leave: “Phil referred to that as the Cabbage Dinner, and it was one of the last parties that the old Burbanks ever attempted. But there had been others – the Mud-Hole Dinner and the Grizzly Bear Dinner.” 

I haven’t seen Jane Campion’s movie, but I highly recommend the novel.

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