October 2006

Michael Antman


The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

I take it more or less as an article of faith that no writer has ever created a fictional character who is as complex, baffling, multi-faceted, ambiguous, self-contradictory, and fully dimensional as even the least complicated actual human being. It’s analogous to the way in which the human brain itself is still infinitely more capacious and flexible than any computer ever created: Reality still beats artifice every time, Hamlet is the ghostliest of presences compared to my high-school English teacher whose name I cannot even recall (at least, I mean, to those she was closest to), and Anna Karenina can’t hold a candle to my sweet and simple Aunt Harriet, may she rest in peace, who lacked “only” a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy to make her life as memorable as it was complex. 

So when a novel succeeds (as Anna Karenina of course does) in creating a character that at least begins to approach the unfathomable complexity of an actual flesh-and-blood human, we consider it to be at least in some degree a great work. Conversely, the factor most likely to convince us that a work of fiction is pulpy and amateurish is not, I believe, the awkward sentences or the cliched situations, but the wooden, one-dimensional, utterly predictable and stultifyingly unreal characters. 

By that measure, Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, set on a Montana ranch some time in the 1920s, is a great, and greatly neglected, work of art, because it contains one of the most complex and fully realized, if utterly loathsome, characters I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. 

Consider: Phil Burbank, the lean and handsome co-protagonist and co-owner of the ranch along with his dull brother George, is a “whistler, and a good one, his tone as accurate as a flute,” a first-rate banjo player, a spellbinding storyteller, an omni-competent rancher who can inspect and repair mowing machines, oversee irrigation operations, fit saddles and wrangle livestock, a superb hunter who could see “through Nature’s pathetic fraud called protective coloring” and “had shot, skinned and stuffed a lynx with skill that would have abashed a taxidermist,” a self-taught chess player who “easily solved the mathematical puzzles in the Scientific American,” an avid reader of philosophy and travel books, a dexterous braider of rawhide ropes, and a skilled woodworker who could carve beautifully crafted miniature chairs with the same fingers he used to “roll a perfect cigarette with one hand,” and yet could also hew out of huge beams “with adze and plane” the enormous derricks used for stacking hay.  So great is his sensitivity to the natural world and so impressive is his ability to master the constructs of the man-made world that “might have been anything -- doctor, teacher, artisan, artist.” 

Usually, characters in fiction who are good at a great many things are also at the very least good human beings, if not James Bond-like heroes. But Phil, though he is “no snob” and hires for his ranch ex-cons and shit-shoveling circus workers, is nonetheless a vicious and nasty creep. He literally stoops to hustling a little boy at a game of marbles, thinks Indians are “lazy and thieving,” and hates and bullies other minorities in all of the usual hateful ways. But -- against all stereotypes -- he detests non-minorities every bit as much, humiliating some fraternity members in a flashback scene that probably represents one of the first times in literary history when a reader is meant to feel some sympathy for frat boys. 

Phil is also a severely repressed homosexual who idolizes an old-timey cowboy named Bronco Henry he once rode with (probably in more ways than one), and a loner who is consumed by envy and jealousy when George, whom Phil has charmingly dubbed “Fatso,” meets and marries a young widow named Rose Gordon whose first husband committed suicide. The main part of the novel concerns Phil’s attempt to drive George and Rose apart by methodically dismantling Rose’s confidence and happiness while, at the same time, slyly attempting to win over her un-manly teenaged son Peter, to whom he is attracted, though Phil of course would never acknowledge this fact. 

It seems an uneven contest -- the ferociously intelligent in-fighter Phil on one side of the equation, and, on the other, the sluggish and taciturn George, who “had no hobbies, no lively interests,” and his delicate and driven-to-drink wife Rose, with, somewhere in the middle of these two camps, Peter, still traumatized by the sight of his father dangling from a rope. But the resolution of this situation -- the revenge -- is relayed in one of the most swift and stunning conclusions I have ever encountered in a book, one which mordantly “explains” the book’s enigmatic title, serves as an enormously satisfying and ironical commentary on Phil’s miserable existence, and even has some very surprising (though obviously unanticipated) relevance to a recent terrorist attack.  The fate that awaits Phil in this book will be welcomed by most readers, but doubly so because Thomas Savage (who died recently, but lived long enough to see The Power of the Dog reissued in paperback in 2001) managed to create a character in the first place who was so multi-faceted, self-contradictory and true to the magnificent strangeness of human nature that readers will actually care whether he lives or dies. The Power of the Dog is an unforgettable book precisely because Phil Burbank is an unforgettably complex character.    

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 0316610895 
293 pages