Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Power of the Dog, by Thomas Savage

Staff Review by Chris Hubbard

An astonishing yet little known American Western novel from the 1960s gets another lease of life. 

First published in 1967, The Power of the Dog is a dark and disturbing tale of the American West. Set during the 1920s it is the story of two brothers, Phil and George Burbank, who take over the running of a ranch when their elderly parents retire to Salt Lake City.

Phil and George, despite being adult siblings who still share the same bedroom, are strikingly opposite in character and build. Phil is tall, wiry and quick-witted. He is also malicious and condescending with a mile-long cruel streak. He constantly belittles George, calling him “Fatso” and makes fun of his brother’s slow yet thoughtful approach to life. George is a kind soul who upon meeting Rose, recently widowed and a mother of one, decides to marry her and bring her to the ranch.

The jealous Phil takes an immediate dislike not only to the pitiable Rose but also to her son Peter. Phil dismisses the boy as a “sissy” and soon begins an onslaught of mental warfare against the new family. At first Rose tries valiantly to co-exist with Phil but his relentless teasing and tormenting eventually wears her down. Rose starts to develop chronic headaches and panic attacks which lead her to “self medicate” with alcohol. Peter on the other hand, caught up in his own private world and dealing with the earlier suicide of his father, appears oblivious to what is going on. But people can only be pushed so far and unforseen plans are being hatched.

Having grown up on a sheep ranch, Thomas Savage wrote this book with plenty of experience to draw upon. It’s a brutal and cynical novel about man’s inhumanity not only toward his own kind but also to the natural world. The novel begins with a shocking aspect of cattle farming which immediately lets the reader know that this is no romanticised account of life in the American West. Rose’s descent into alcoholic despair could easily have become the subject of melodrama but Savage makes the reader feel every anxious moment of her mental deterioration. The Power of the Dog is a brilliant book  that could almost be described as a psychological horror Western. Despite the bleak subject matter it abounds with astonishing and poetic images. Definitely worth discovering!

The Power of the Dog, by Thomas Savage. Published by Vintage Classics.  ISBN: 9781784870621 RRP: $22.99

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