Monday, 11 September 2017

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (pub.1967)


The story is told with the yarning tone of a cowboy God hopping from mind to mind. Pay attention; everything is significant, anything that is left out would have impeded the story that you the listener can plait in yourself. Phil is the older brother of the two that run a big cattle spread in Montana. They trail a thousand head in the fall down to the railhead at Beech a dismal little town that has the amenities that a cowboy might require, whiskey and sporting women. The time is 1925 as near as I can make out. Phil is the smart one that affects yokelosity. There’s a sneer in that and surely must have been part of the profound contempt that drove his parents to a retirement in Salt Lake City. They originally came from Boston, Mass. and they brought their gentility with them even unto fingerbowls which the invited rich ranchers and distinguished locals never knew what to do with. The other brother is George a stocky, slow, reliable sort of sound man. Between them they run the ranch and share the tasks. Phil does the castration of the bull calves and George ropes them. My stockman pocket knife has a round ended blade for popping out the testicles, Phil tears them out. Is that a signal one asks oneself? Is Phil a self-emasculating man whose need to control everything has eliminated a point of weakness. I guess.

After an embarrassing visit to the bunkhouse a callow hand asks:

When he had gone, one of the new loudmouthed young cowhands spoke right up. "Hey — he's sort of a lonely cuss, ain't he? Like about what we was saying before he come in, do you guess anybody ever loved him? Or maybe he ever loved anybody?" The oldest man in the bunkhouse stared at the young fellow. What the young fellow had said was unsuitable, even ugly. What had love to do with Phil? The oldest man in the bunkhouse reached down and patted the head of a little brown bitch that slept close. "I wouldn't want to be saying nothing about him and love. And if I was you, I wouldn't call him a cuss. It don't show respect."
"Well, hell," the young fellow said, blushing.
"You got to learn to show respect. You got an awful lot to learn about love."

Phil is a puzzle to all. He can do anything he sets his mind and hands to, woodwork from the little to the large, inch high Sheraton chairs carved with a scalpel and giant derricks for stacking the hay bales adze dubbed and hand planed. He’s a first class blacksmith and taxidermist and a banjo player. This last may have been part of his rube persona to annoy the aesthete parents and their Victrola charged with classical music. Little Red Wing, heh, heh. He likes too to talk about the old times, he’s 40, which is a touch premature. Anyway Bronco Henry was his mentor when he was a young feller who taught him how to fashion a hide lariat. Modern man gets to wondering about this relationship and Annie Proulx in her afterword comes right out with it. Was Phil a repressed homosexual? Plait that in if you wish but it’s a frail strand. Phil has a good college degree from a California university (where George failed), he keeps up with things and if there were the slightest impulse towards homosexuality he would not talk about Bronco. Phil is too guarded to give anything like that away. Bronco was a loved mentor and he died, stomped to death in a corral. Sometimes a lariat is just a lariat.

George is the antithesis of Phil in being not very smart but very kind and he springs a surprise by a secret marriage to Rose the widow of a doctor who committed suicide. The suggestion is that it was the result of a humiliating incident with Phil. Young Peter the son knows this. The interesting element in the characterization is the contrast between clever Phil and clever Peter who according to the code of the cowboy is a certified sissy.

Phil resents the intrusion of a woman into the life of the family, a cheap schemer after the money . He sets out to break her and sets about it methodically.

After supper Phil read for a time close by the lamp; then he rose abruptly and marched down the hall to the bedroom, closed the door behind him and got out his banjo and tuned up. He had to smile, had to smile thinking of George coming into that house with this woman, trying to make things smooth. How had he said? You remember Rose? That was it. What kind of a name was Rose. The name of somebody's cook. He had to smile, had to smile thinking of George down on one knee before the unlighted fire — a little disappointed that Phil had not lighted it before their arrival, that the room might be all comfortable and welcoming. Ha-ha-ha. George should have known Phil better than to think he would do something he didn't feel. Phil had to smile thinking of the sidelong glance Rose gave him at the supper table. He knew how he looked, knew it would get her goat. It used to get the Old Lady's goat, the rumpled shirt, the uncombed hair, the stubble of beard, the unwashed hands. She might just as well get smart to the fact that he didn't do things like other people because he wasn't like other people, that he left his napkin pointedly untouched, reached for food rather than asked for it, and if he had to snuffle his nose, he snuffled. If the fancy relatives back East could stomach it, God knew this woman could, and if she was unused to a man's leaving the table without first bowing and scraping and saying ''Excuse me," she might just as well catch on now. Oh yes (he had to smile) she was in for a few surprises.

I’ll say no more about this book which though it was well received critically in 1967 didn’t sell much and then disappeared. The many strands in it are twisted together smoothly and there is no makeweight filler. Quite simply, this is an American classic.

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