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.
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.