Subtler than Steinbeck, warmer-hearted than Cormac McCarthy

This is my review of The Power of the Dog (Vintage Classics) by Thomas Savage.

In 1920s Montana, brothers Phil and George devote their lives to running their prosperous cattle ranch. Despite living and working so closely together, even to the point of sharing a bedroom, the two could not be more different. George is stolid, dull, but decent and kind. Phil, a brilliant literary creation apparently modelled on the author’s step-uncle, is a complex, multi-talented man of intriguing contrasts: intellectually brilliant, musical, athletic, skilful with his hands, Phil has not only rejected the glowing career he might have pursued, but insists on wearing the rough clothes of a working man and resists any kind of change, scorning for example the cars which disrupt the flow of cattle to the railhead. For reasons continually implied, but never fully revealed, he has twisted his sensitivity and insight into the winkling out of any weakness in the creatures he hunts: “He knew if a timber wolf was lame, noted the fainter print of the favoured paw in dust or snow. In the sudden elbow of a stream where the baffled water turned upon itself he watched the trout ‘conceal’ itself in the shadow of a rock”. The same applies to those unfortunate enough to cross his path, subjecting them to merciless jibes if the mood takes him. So, when lonely George marries a young widow whom Phil regards as a socially inferior gold-digger, he sets out with typical obsessive patience to destroy her. The tale is bound to end in tragedy, but for whom?

By turns nostalgic, poignant or ironic, this gripping psychological study is very-well constructed so that, on reflection at the sudden unexpected ending, a trail of previous random details reveal themselves as clues and slot neatly into place. All the main characters are fully developed, with a depth and subtlety which even evokes some sympathy for Phil. Digressions on the way are as striking as the main plot, in their vivid descriptions of the terrain, and the portraits of minor characters, such as the Indian, unable to give up his pride over being the son of a chief, who leaves his poverty-stricken reservation without permission in order to show his own son the fertile lands of his youth: “the fields thick with purple lupine that waved and billowed in the breeze like water….the dark gray thunderheads that reared high over the mountains and lumbered like grizzlies across the sky, heavy with water”.

The fact that so much of the novel seems to have been based on Thomas Savage’s own experiences of belonging to a large ranching family gives the book its authenticity. It is a pity that this book was not hailed as a masterpiece when it first appeared in 1967. Perhaps even now that it has been “rediscovered”, too many readers will be put off by the instances of at best cavalier and at worst cruel treatment of animals in the book, starting with a graphic description of castrating calves in the opening paragraph: but this is all part of the reality of a life which the author knew first-hand.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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