Tag Archives: Montana

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage: Entirely deserving of its Stoner comparison

Cover imageFirst 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.

The Ploughmen: A strange kind of friendship

Cover imageI’d picked out Kim Zupan’s debut in my August paperback preview as a novel somewhat outside my usual literary territory but whose blurb made it sound worth investigating. It arrived jacketed a little like a Kent Haruf novel but what really sealed the deal was a puff from Mark Spragg whose An Unfinished Life and The Fruit of Stone I’d rate alongside Haruf’s work. Set in similar American smalltown territory to Haruf’s wonderful Holt novels, The Ploughmen‘s not in that league but it is a compelling novel, well worth reading.

It opens dramatically with a young Valentine Millimaki finding his mother hanged in the family barn, led there by a note meant for his father. Fast forward a few years and Millimaki is a cop, frequently sent out to track down hikers and skiers lost in the Montana wilds. His wife spends many hours in their isolated home, lonely and anxious, waiting for her husband to come home. Meanwhile John Gload and his partner are engaged in cleaning up after a murder, dismembering and disposing of the latest in a long line of corpses after robbing the victim. Gload is exasperated by the stupidity of young Sidney White. Before long, he lands up on trial courtesy of White’s evidence given after he’s fingered for the rape and murder of a young woman. Millimaki draws the short straw and ends up on the graveyard shift at the local jail, straining his marriage still further, where Gload takes a shine to him. Spotting an opportunity, the sheriff asks Millimaki to extract as much information as he can from Gload. As the month wears on, a strangely intimate bond grows between these two disparate men who share more than you might expect.

I very nearly gave The Ploughman up early on: it’s a tad overwritten for me – ‘a phallic tower with a dome of hammered copper which at that hour beaconed its russet affluence to the working-class homes on the river below’ gives you an idea. What kept me going was Zupan’s characterisation which makes the strange bond between Millimaki and Gload both gripping and believable. Both men’s backstories are skilfully delivered, filling in the groundwork convincingly for what one man will call friendship while the other does his duty, drawn into a discomfiting intimacy. While Gload’s crimes are monstrous, Zupan succeeds in humanising him so that Millimaki’s empathy seems credible making the novel’s ending entirely fitting. Not Haruf, then, but what was I thinking of? Definitely worth keeping an eye out for a second Zupan novel, and well done Picador for publishing this one straight into paperback.