New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
  2. Books
7 March 2016

Ranch rage: the welcome return of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog was first published in 1967 and is now being re-released by Vintage as a “rediscovered classic”, as John Williams’s Stoner was published a few years ago.

By Erica Wagner

Let’s just say that the opening paragraph of this novel grabs you by the balls. And no, that is not a lazy metaphor.

“Phil always did the castrating,” the book begins. “First he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed.” Paying attention, now, are you?

But this is not violence for its own sake and it is an image that resonates through the novel. Phil Burbank and his brother, George, run the biggest, most successful ranch in their part of Montana, out in the American West. The story is set in the 20th century but the frontier doesn’t feel very far away. Phil and George’s parents – the Old Gent and the Old Lady, as they are called throughout the book – did very well out of ranching. They are still living but have retired to Salt Lake City (“Brigham Young’s paradise”, as Phil calls the place).

Into this wholly masculine setting comes Rose Gordon, the widow of a local doctor who arrived to do good in a place that had not much use for that; his suicide is her shame and the shadow that hangs over her and their quiet, clever son, Peter. The dynamic that arises between Phil, George, Rose and Peter is the engine that drives this ruthless book.

A reader might find its style reminiscent of that of Cormac McCarthy, or Annie Proulx – but Savage’s career pre-dates them both. The Power of the Dog was first published in 1967 and is now being re-released by Vintage as a “rediscovered classic”, in much the same manner as John Williams’s Stoner was published a few years ago. However, while Williams’s novel did, for the most part, slip through the net when it first appeared in 1965, The Power of the Dog was a great success in its day. As Annie Proulx writes in an excellent afterword, it was very well reviewed and was optioned for a film no fewer than five times (though none was ever made). Yet no matter: this is the perfect example of a book that never quite made it to the rank of classic in its author’s lifetime but is more than worthy of resurrection now.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Suspense pulls the book forward – nearly all of it arising from the hair-raising horror engendered by Phil Burbank. Describing his attributes makes him sound like a fine sort of person, an all-American hero, able to sit a horse or shoot a rifle with the best of them. He is a talented leather worker and a dab hand on the banjo, to boot. Yet Phil is a snake of coiled hatred and bitterness, a character who is so dark that the reader cannot look away from him. Every scene in which he appears has violence, revealed or suppressed, at its core.

Idle for a moment in the shade of a willow, he might take out his pocketknife, open the big blade and the small blade, and holding it between thumb and index finger he would toss it to turn over once, twice or three times before it pricked the earth at an angle of exactly forty-five degrees.

The point of the knife is in the ground, that’s all, but we recall from the book’s opening where that knife has been and just what it can do.

Phil’s dismay at George’s growing affection for Rose comes from more than a desire to keep the family structure that he has known all his life intact. His world is encroached upon from all directions – and, like a threatened snake, he will strike. Savage creates a world in which the new intrudes on the old; bitterness and sorrow do their best to crush any chance of happiness. When the novel was first published, much of the discussion around it centred on “good” and “evil”. In the 21st century, the nature of Phil’s desire and his struggle against it as he feels drawn to Rose’s son can be spoken of openly. But, for Phil, there can be no openness, only violence and rage.

All this is set in a landscape that is made visible in plain, clear language. The wind “was never idle in Beech summer or winter”, moving the fin of a broken windmill round and round, “attached to nothing, squeaking, squeaking so painfully that sleep was difficult for the infrequent transients trapped in the town”. Thunderheads roll away across the broad vistas. There is the sight of an abandoned nest of a bird, a few shells left on the ground. Destruction is everywhere, or just held at bay: the shocking turn of the book’s final pages keeps the story bright as a blade to the end.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage is published by Vintage Classics (282pp, £8.99)

Content from our partners
The future of private credit
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce

This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis