Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

I looked up Thomas Savage's books on Amazon after reading about him in the Winter 2008 issue of Montana, the Magazine of Western History. Born in Dillon, Montana and publishing 13 novels between 1944 and 1988, Savage is rarely listed among contemporary western writers like Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, or Larry McMurtry, possibly because only a few of his books take place in the west, and he didn't begin writing until he'd settled in New England. He also had a certain cosmopolitan flamboyance at odds with the stereotypical western personality. Consequently, thinking I'd discovered a "forgotten" writer––or one Montana had rediscovered for me––I was surprised when the edition I ordered turned out to have been reissued in 2001 and had an afterward by Annie Proulx. Though it's not a surprise that Proulx would have been drawn to the subject matter of repressed homosexuality in the cowboy west. This time the novel was written in the 60s and takes place in the 20s.

The Power of the Dog is a most unusual novel. One thing I enjoy about most Western writers, both contemporary and those from the past like Willa Cather, is the way the western landscape becomes a character in itself. This is not so much the case with this novel. Nor would I say the writing is particularly stand out. What does stand out, though, in this novel where a grown man and a young boy eventually turn into two opposing forces battling for supremacy, is the psychological depth of the characters, their contrasting personalities, and the scheming and plotting, handled so deftly that it did not seem at all over-the-top. And while, on my zine writer blog, I often warn new writers to avoid a "twist" at the end, this one worked well.

Reading the article in Montana, which should eventually become available online, one wonders if Savage didn't hide his own homosexuality behind a wife and children as so many did in those times and if this didn't provide the depth of insight into his characters. But while Phil and his step-nephew Peter dominate the story, all the characters are well developed down to the parents who really play only a minor roll.

This is the kind of book you are drawn to read in one sitting. It really pulls you in, and, when it becomes available, I highly recommend the Montana article Thomas Savage for greater insight into the author and his times.

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