Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Power of the Dog - Thomas Savage

"Deliver my soul from the sword,
My darling from the power of the dog"

Rarely does a book stay with you for long after you finish reading. The after effect of it remain for few days, despite you physically moved on to the next few books. Thus it did take a while to write the impression.  At the outset, the tale is simple and straight forward,  But the characters, one especially, grow on you, as you read on. There is nothing that makes you like this person; on the contrary. But his presence in the pages, in the lives of the rest continue to impress you. The art of writing literature, lies in getting this feel across the readers, by elusive but omnipresent, never been seen as the man in control, but subtly managing these movements in the readers with such clever manipulation. He is a master craftsman.

Set in 1920s in the ranches of Montana, telling a story of two brothers. The elder one Phil Burbank, nasty , arrogant, educated, intelligent and the man in control of himself and his surroundings. The younger George Burbank, timid, though college educated not exhibiting any level of  smartness, usually elusive , less spoken and thus feared by the ranch -helps. The usually predictable , planned through the seasons life and activities in the Ranch is nothing to create any interest in the readers. Their parents are now 'retired' and live in the city seldom visit the ranch, and George reserved continue to live a shadow life, with Phil taking the control over things. However, to this set up comes, a widow and her son.  Rose, after the death of her husband, a doctor,after a showdown with the Burbanks resulting in his suicide later,  run an eating joint to live, where she was befriended by George, who bring her home, soon enough as his wife.

With the presence of the lady the equations within the ranch is disturbed to the displeasure of Phil.  With his indifference, the power which yield over the ranch, manages to make life diffcult to Rose, giving her jitters every time they were in proximity. Every attempt from her for a reconciliation is received with cold shoulders. Without direct contact or actions, Phil is able create the sense of terror in her, drifting her towards alcohol. Phil continue to torment the mother and son, now trying to use the young boy as a pawn in the whole game. As Rose succumbs to Alcohol, and George continue to live his usual life, the terror regime subtly take control. However, the young boy Peter,whom Phil try to take under his wings, to step up the antagonism, has been working on his revenge.

It is this eerie atmosphere he creates with his words, Thomas Savage, delivers a master piece of work.  The book starts itself with the description of a castration.

"Phil always did the castrating; 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. There was little blood. In a few moments the testicles exploded like a huge popcorn."
It is the subtlety, the exact nature of human characteristic, he brings out through this sublime narration. Phil, continue to astonish the readers, and is portrayed brilliantly. The various shades of a genius, his smartness, his education, his cruelty, his subdued homo sexuality ( Annie Proulux in her after words, takes this aspect in much more detail), his solo time with his Banjo and within the tough interiors of a multifaceted man. He is self sufficient, runs and manage and repair every equipment in the ranch, reads and solve puzzles of Scientific American, also brilliant Banjo player, play chess, works along with the rest of the helps as a part of them, but always stay out of the celebrations. He is not interested in women, hence the struggle is not for the lady. Even while his mates celebrates with women post their season, he stay out. Until the arrival of the lady, he always waits for his brother to come back, get to night dress and listen to his heavy breathing. We are not aware of his preferences. The only references we see is his constant recollection of the Mentor, a rancher who taught him the trick of the trade.

The boy, Peter too shows a submissive character through out, allowing the rest of the male members to ridicule him as a 'sissy'. He is unhappy with the way things are and the state his mother is in. He will to be able to confront the mighty ranchers with his feeble body, but he has the genes of his father,  and the vast collection of his medical books. In the stunning last pages we see the triumph of the clever planning and execution of his revenge. There is a reference to the Psalm 22:20, from which the title of this book is derived, and it does convey the essence of the book in a nutshell.

 A brilliant book of complex characterisation and stunning portrayal of the subtle humane nature.  
The Power of the Dog ( 1967)

Thomas Savage

Back Bay Books

293  Pages
The Book Slut

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