By Kevin Rabalais
Every serious reader knows that she will eventually get around to Middlemarch and Moby-Dick and The Magic Mountain. We spend much of our reading lives working toward such classics. We often save them in hope that they will one day save us. Such books come with so much expectation—not to mention an array of preconceived notions—that we sometimes convince ourselves that we’ve read them before we ever turn the first page.
For that reason, it’s often the books that come at us unexpectedly—namely, those recommendations from other members of the tribe, titles that pass back and forth like secret handshakes—that startle and disarm us the most.
We speak often of our favorite writers. Seldom, however, do we acknowledge our favorite readers. One of mine recently directed me to Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog. I hadn’t heard of the Salt Lake City-born Savage (1915-2003), much less this title, one of thirteen by a PEN/Faulkner nominee and Guggenheim recipient. One hundred pages into The Power of the Dog, however, I was already ordering another one of Savage’s books. Now I can’t wait for more.
The first pages of The Power of the Dog (reissued with an afterward by Annie Proulx) hold a charge that gives you an urgent need to find a pencil. You find yourself reading Savage and underlining passages of wisdom or the many quiet moments that fill this novel and that strike with the kinds of home truths we find in the best fiction. Then, when you’re done with all that underlining, all you want to do is go out and share the good word with others.
Set in Montana in the 1920s, The Power of the Dog centers around brothers Phil and George Burbank. They are cattle ranchers, opposites in every way, whose relationship reaches a new level of strain when George falls for a widow with a dark past.
Savage writes of the Burbanks’ lives with great insight, but he examines every character as though he or she is at the novel’s core. Here, he writes of the woman’s son, Peter, before his father’s death:
As poultry in the pen pecks to death the maimed or strange among them, so at school was Peter hazed, taunted and named a sissy—the hiss of the word was everywhere. But only when they named his father a drunk did he turn on them. Quicker than he, they dodged easily and stood in a circle around him, their eyes bright with fun, their mouths making in unison the cruelly lacerating sound of the nasal “a.” Just so, he knew, in other circles had their fathers stood, and their grandfathers, tormenting some other pariah, some other odd one; just so would their own sons stand.
The Power of the Dog is one of those novels that breaks your heart in the manner of Stoner or Revolutionary Road. As Proulx writes in the afterward, “Something aching and lonely and terrible of the west is caught forever in these pages.” And yet we read on, eager for more of those aches, for all of the terrible loneliness, because Savage makes us feel his characters’ pain and longings and, yes, their tender joys, in every paragraph. He deserves the same renaissance as Richard Yates, John Williams and Dawn Powell experienced in recent years.
And you, Dear Reader, deserve a huge thank you for pointing me toward the beautiful work of Thomas Savage.