Thomas Savage has earned a reputation as one of the best writers of the American West. He has 13 novels to his credit, and has received a PEN/Faulkner nomination and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Power of the Dog was named the year’s best novel by the San Francisco Chronicle. It is the tale of two bachelor ranchers and the lovely widow who shifts the precarious balance of their lives. A superb storyteller, Savage spins a dramatic counterpoint of rustic tranquility and the struggle for survival.
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East of Eden's Cal & Aron, Legends of the Fall's Alfred & Samuel, Shakespeare's Danish brothers King Claudius & Hamlet, Sherlock & Mycroft Holmes, Thor & Loki...since "the Lord said unto Cain, 'Where is Abel thy brother?'" sibling rivalry -- to the degree beyond simple sibling dysfunction -- has been at the heart of some of our greatest, and most entertaining, literature. Whether the feuds ended in fratricide or ride out through old age with an icy silent treatment, the exploration to the root of rivalry is more provocatively done in the hands of writers than psychologists, the latter who give us a sterilized: "Sibling rivalry is particularly intense when children are very close in age and of the same gender and/or where one or both children are intellectually gifted." [quoted from Wikipedia] Whereas authors give us The Brothers Karamazov, East of Eden, The Song of Fire and Ice, ....and Savage's The Power of the Dog... with the most magnificently complex, ambiguous, enigmatic sonovabitch you'll never forget: Phil Burbank. (A year older, the same gender, and the one that is intellectually gifted...check, check, and check with Wikipedia's identifying characteristics.)
Savage, writes a near-perfect human drama, an intense character study, creating one of the most memorable and complicated figures in American Western literature. There are really no minor characters -- only a superbly developed cast of equally dysfunctional characters could provide the heavy framework suitable for the epilogue of such a contemptible antagonist. The psychology is deeply layered and strategic, not so much unfolding with the storyline as adding an intensity to it as Phil methodically carries out his revenge. All of the hallmarks of a Shakespearean Tragedy, except The Power of the Dog is a Western with an anti-hero.
Set in the early 1900's on a prosperous cattle ranch in Montana. The Burbank boys have grown up together, slept in the same room together, eaten every meal together, and together inherited the running of the ranch when their parents retired to Colorado. First-born, Phil, apparently sucked the deep end of the gene pool dry the year before George gestated. An Omni-being, gifted with looks, brains, talents; a voracious reader and student of philosophy, mathematics, history and geography; Phil whistles with the accuracy a flute, plays the banjo, the fiddle/the violin, “had shot, skinned and stuffed a lynx with skill that would have abashed a taxidermist,” "solved the mathematical puzzles in the Scientific American,” could carve anything full-sized to a miniature set of ornate chairs with the same hand that could “roll a perfect cigarette" or braid an intricate set of horse reins. Gloves have never been used to protect these hands from dirt, thorn, or "shit-shoveling." He is idolized, admired, and equally feared; an outspoken bully that hates minorities, society, women, charity, and negatively views businessmen and politicians. His nickname for his brother is "Fatso." George, aka Fatso, is the polar side of this brotherhood. Sensitive, reserved, modest even self-deprecating. The young submissive brother, you sense in George an intuitive fear of his sibling. George's marriage to the widow Rose, and the new presence of her son Peter on the Burbank Ranch
Any respectable story of rivalry plants that seed of antagonism with comparison and contrast; nourishes it with conflict; foments it with dissent. Savage was unwilling to settle for that simple formula. Phil outwardly seems to suffer no pangs of his own conscience, subverting it instead into acts of hatred and jealousy. But, this is no formulaic story that you can count on to neatly unfold into a brother vs. brother smackdown.
And here I offer you the best advice when reading this novel: Find your own way into this book. Let the author throw the knockout punch. You won't see it coming, but you'll see it when you look back. Allow yourself to appreciate-in-hindsight the psychological underpinnings, to think over the possible roads you may have been lead down by the author, the modern and timely themes, and let it all settle in. I guarantee There will be aftershocks; that you will look back at a very different book than what you started with.
Written in 1967, re-published in 2001 with an afterword by Annie Proulx. Savage is a writer on par with two of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner, his style has undertones of John Williams' work of perfection, Stoner. Absolutely placed reverently on my Top Shelf.
A recent reissue of a 1967 ground-breaking Western novel, a high-pressurized psychological study of two brothers, George and Phil, as well as of the former's new wife Rose, who before the marriage was a widow, and her 17-year-old 'Miss Nancy,' which was brother Phil's nickname for Peter, the sensitive, 'sissy' son. The novel was set in the 1920s.
I don't want to say too much to give away the plot, which is in fact telegraphed from early on. I will say though that the novel reminds me of a merciless, blustering bully I knew growing up who expressed an absolute disgust with gay men, so much so, he said, that he refused to eat hot dogs, bananas or mayo. I was no Freudian scholar but I knew enough about human nature to figure out this dude had some major "issues" with his sexuality. This was in the early 80s, in the South and AIDS/HIV was just coming on the radar as a public scare.
This novel particularly resonated with me because I was bullied between 13 and 15 years old, as a very, very late bloomer. My voice did not start to change until I was 17, I didnt have to shave until I was 19, I was skinny as a rail until 19, and I grew 6 inches between graduating high school and turning 21. So, I was bullied without mercy and called "faggot," "sissy," and other names. Thing is, I have always been heterosexual and never questioned my sexuality. I've never had a problem with the sexuality of others. In my family--that I know of--I have a gay first cousin and 2 gay first cousins-once removed.
Looking back, I have little doubt that my torturers acted against me, as smaller and weaker, out of fear and hatred and self-repression. Though I still carry light scars from those few years, I have always been secure in my sexuality and I am probably considerably bigger than those guys are now.
Back to this brilliant 1967 book, it is a real steel-toed boot to the butt of many bullies. A compelling examination of self-hatred's hoodoo and the hold over a household that a rabid dog can have.