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.

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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.

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)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis