The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

the power of the dogNot for the faint-hearted…

Brothers Phil and George Burbank are an odd couple but have always lived quite happily together, running the ranch they’ve taken over from their parents. Phil is the smart one, who could have been anything he chose, while George is quieter and not as bright as his brother. They rub along together well, though, each with their own tasks, and George’s stolid character gives him a level of immunity to Phil’s sarcasm and cruel comments. But when out of the blue George falls in love and marries, Phil’s sadism comes to the fore as he sets out to destroy George’s new wife, using her son as his weapon.

There is much to like and admire about this book but I’m going to start by mentioning something I wish I had known before choosing to read it – namely, that there are repeated episodes of animal cruelty throughout, that escalate towards the end of the book to a level where I had to skip a chunk of it completely. I’m not talking about the normal cruelty that happens as part of ranching – the castration scenes, for example. These I could accept as part of the story. But the detailed descriptions of animals being deliberately tortured for fun were too much for me, regardless of relevance.

However, for the right reader, this is a fascinating and powerful study of a sadistic personality, looking below the surface cruelty to find the causes. Phil’s parents always thought there was something not right about him, but seem more concerned with reassuring each other that his problems are not their fault than trying to deal with them. By the time the book starts, they have taken the easy option and gone to live in Utah, leaving their sons to run the ranch in their stead.

George doesn’t make any effort to prevent Phil’s cruelty, but his natural kindness leads him to try to put things right for the people Phil hurts. And it’s this that draws him to Rose in the first instance, after Phil had publicly ridiculed her son Peter for being a ‘sissy’. Like Phil’s parents, Rose has also always known her son is not like other boys but, unlike them, if anything that increases her love for him, and her fear of how he will cope with life. But as Phil’s constant sneering and contempt wear Rose down, the roles reverse and she finds herself relying more and more on her son’s seeming strength.

Thomas Savage
Thomas Savage

Written in 1967 but set further back in the 1920s, the book is really an examination of society’s attitudes towards homosexuality and ‘manliness’ at that time, particularly in the very male world of the cowboy. There’s a bit of stereotyping in the way Peter’s ‘sissy’-ness is portrayed, but this is offset by the otherwise excellent characterisation throughout. Phil is monstrous, but believably so, while the different weaknesses of Rose and George are convincing. The more peripheral parts of the book were, for me, some of the most interesting – the story of Peter’s father, failing as a doctor in this small place, and gradually diminishing; the episode of the “Indians” travelling back to visit the land of their fathers and becoming unwitting pawns in the power struggle on the ranch; and the lives of this traditional ranching community as the era of the cowboy was drawing towards an end.

So, if it weren’t for the animal cruelty, I’d be recommending this quite highly – probably 4 stars. As it is, 2½ – and you have been warned…

🙂 🙂 😐 (but probably more for the right reader)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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49 thoughts on “The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

  1. And I do appreciate the warning, FictionFan! Just on that animal cruelty score, I probably won’t be reading this. That said, though, I do respect it when a ‘bad guy’ is presented as a real person, whose sadism, cruelty, etc. are believable. And I find the reaction of the parents to be particularly interesting. It reminds me just a tiny bit of the parents in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Hmmm….nope, sorry, still not going to read this because of the animal cruelty. But I do find some of the rest of it interesting. And of course, your review’s terrific.

    • I do think publishers should be more upfront in blurbs – this is a very good book that will end up with some probably undeserved negative reviews from people like me who are too squeamish for it. I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that there really ought to be some kind of labelling on books the way there is on films – not an age guide, but a warning of things that might put some readers off. At least in this one the cruelty wasn’t exactly gratuitous, but it was still too much for me. I still haven’t read ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, but it’s on my little list… I did find the parents interesting in this one, though…

  2. Pah – the book sounds fascinating, but for the animal cruelty scenes. For some reason I can read through the most awful violence and abuse of adult humans, but when it comes to kids and animals I just don’t want it in my literature. There’s too much of it in real life. I am intrigued by the characters of the parents and also the wife. The brothers remind me slightly of George and Lennie from Of Mice And Men. But I just can’t bring myself to read this one, apologies, FF. Back to the insanity of The Wake! (There will be a post next week, promise!)

    • I’m exactly the same – I’ve made it happily through all Val McDermid’s serial killers but have never really forgiven her for the one scene involving a cat! Yes! They made me think of George and Lennie too! But kinda in reverse – in this one it was dumb George who was the good guy. Well, I wouldn’t have read it either if I’d known, so I always think it’s only fair to warn people what they’re getting into. The good thing is if there’s any animal cruelty in Joyce, it’s probably so incomprehensible you won’t notice… 😉

    • Haha! I must admit I was surprised to see how many 5 star reviews it has, almost none of which mention the animal cruelty! I suspect I may be particularly squeamish but it was definitely all too much for me.

    • That’s how I feel too – all the good stuff in it didn’t make up for some of the images I wish I hadn’t been left with. It wasn’t gratuitous exactly, but too detailed…

  3. Very interesting… I know the ranching world, so I might add this to my list. But I do worry about the animal cruelty scenes. That’s a hard read for me too. I had a hard time with Of Mice and Men! Great review. I shall have thinks about this, as the professor would say…

    • Yes, I don’t know if I’d get through Of Mice and Men now – I think my squeamishness is growing as I get… ahem… less young! But if you can make it past those scenes, the rest of the book is well worth reading, and in terms of the subject matter the animal cruelty wasn’t gratuitous… it was very interesting about the ranching life at that time, and that aspect felt completely authentic to me.

  4. Only a Savage would write something like this! Ha, just kidding. But it does seem like a dark book, for sure. Does Phil commit suicide in the end? You must tell me, of course.

    Castration scenes in books?! Goodness. #brutal

    • No, the ghosts of all the animals he has tortured come back and torment him hideously by crawling into his bed while he’s sleeping… *remembers the worms and fears for the Professor suddenly*

      *laughs wickedly* Fortunately only of beasts… I had to hide it from poor Tommy though…

  5. Thanks for the warning. I’ve seen this compared to Stoner, but as it sounds a bit grim and contains those scenes of animal cruelty, I think I’ll pass.

    • Yes, I’ve seen those comparisons too and haven’t read Stoner, but from the reviews I’ve read of it the only real comparisons I can see are that they’re both characters studies and both books that have been brought back to the public eye after decades! This one is grim – too tough for me really, though I could appreciate its good points…

  6. Sounds interesting but I also have trouble with gratuitous violence/cruelty. I recently stopped reading an otherwise decent book for that reason. Sometimes I can see the purpose behind it but if it feels unnecessary, I have trouble with it.

    • It sorta wasn’t altogether gratuitious in this one, but I did feel it was unnecessarily detailed. Sometimes a hint is enough. Fortunately the worst scene came very late on, so I decided just to skip it and finish the book anyway – if it had come earlier, I’d have abandoned the book for sure.

  7. Um, not for me. You’ve done another fine job reviewing it, though, and I do appreciate your warning about the animal cruelty. That’s one thing I just can’t tolerate — shoot, I can’t even stand the idea of somebody hitting a squirrel or rabbit, then leaving it to rot in the road!

    • Yes, I hate it nearly as much in fiction as in real life – and if I’d known in advance I wouldn’t have read the book, so it seemed only fair to warn other people. Pity, because it wasn’t really gratuitous in this story, but I’m afraid it still killed my appreciation of the book…

  8. This would be one I wouldn’t be able to get through. I can survive cruelty related to some kind of relevant purpose (ranch life isn’t terribly animal friendly), but gratuitous torture, hmmmm. I did enjoy your well-tempered review, though.

    • Thanks, Jilanne! 🙂 Yes, I can’t say I enjoyed the ranch stuff, but I wouldn’t want all that side of it prettied up. As a meat-eater, I reckon it would be totally hypocritical of me to pretend that farming animals doesn’t involve a lot of cruelty. But the rest of it – well, it was kinda relevant to the characterisation but I felt it could have been implied or minimised rather than spelled out in detail…

  9. Aside from the animal cruelty, I really like the sound of this and would still be interested in reading it. Sounds like a fascinating study of a filial relationship.

    • If you can cope with the animal cruelty bit or, as I did, just skip the worst of it, there’s plenty in here to appreciate. The characterisation and relationships between them all are done very well, and I thought the picture of ranch life felt very authentic. I wish I was a bit less squeamish…

  10. Oh dear. Comparisons to Stoner, if true, would make me interested, there sounds to be stuff which would be interesting but it may well be there is too much which I wouldn’t be able to read.

  11. I’ve taken The Power of the Dog off my list after reading your review. It’s a shame really, psychopaths are so interesting, but when the behaviour becomes cruel and the descriptions too graphic, I can’t read it either.

    • Yes, it’s a pity – for once, I’m not really saying the animal cruelty in this one was gratuitous, exactly, but whether it was relevant or not, it was still too tough for me. I reckon he could probably have got the point across just as well with some skilful hinting…

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