First published in 1967 and now reissued as a rediscovered classic, Thomas Savage’s novel comes lauded to the skies by the likes of Nicholas Shakespeare, who claims it’s better than Stoner, and Annie Proulx, who rates it sufficiently to have written a lengthy afterword. It also came with a health warning from its publicist who told me I’d need a strong stomach for the opening paragraph – and that’s true – but given that I’d read The Son last year, perhaps the most gut-churning book I’ve ever read, I was more than well prepared. And it is only one paragraph – it would be a shame not to continue should you find it all a bit much. Set in 1924, Savage’s novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university.
Almost forty, Phil still looks like a boy: not a line to be seen on his face although his hands are deeply scarred from hard work thanks to his refusal to wear the gloves he scorns. Sharp, educated and with a lively enquiring mind, Phil is in stark contrast to his younger brother George, a plodder who barely makes it through the local Saturday paper by the end of the week. These two are inseparable but where Phil despises everyone and everything, delighting in belittling others, George is kind and empathetic, quick to see the tiredness of the widowed owner of their nearest town’s restaurant which caters to the Burbanks’ ranch hands. Also a kind man, Rose’s husband liked a drink, holding forth to anyone who would listen at the town saloon until a cruel humiliation drove him to suicide. Their son Peter, quiet and bookish, knows all about that having suffered taunts and worse at the hands of the local schoolkids. When George brings Rose home as his wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Once winter is over, Peter comes to stay at the ranch and things take a different turn.
Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, occasionally and very effectively switching points of view throwing new light on a crucial event. His characterisation is sharp yet understated – Phil’s calculated cruelty contrasts with George’s open-hearted yet diffident kindness but Savage avoids the pitfall of making Phil a one-dimensional character, gradually uncovering his complexities. It’s left to the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt, although it’s clear to modern minds fairly early on. Rose’s disintegration is poignantly portrayed: ‘When she spoke of Phil her mouth grew dry, her tongue thickened. The thought of him scattered all pleasant and coherent thought and reduced her emotions to a child’s’. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of that Stoner comparison. Savage’s descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. Given Annie Proulx’s afterword I couldn’t help thinking of Brokeback Mountain and hoping she might pass a copy of Savage’s novel to Ang Lee.