The Power of the Dog

While I think it’s important to try to chip away at a TBR, either through actually reading the books on it or constantly refining it and winnowing it down, I think it’s also important to stay open to truly random, out of left field suggestions.

The Power of the Dog was one such left field book—a coworker mentioned over beers that our mutual friend had given the book a strong recommendation but that he couldn’t stand it himself.

“You love yourself too much, book,” was his exact complaint.

But, same as with L’Élégance du hérisson or Pappan och havet, I get curious about the books that people I know are really enthusiastic about. The library had a copy and I had a trip up to the family farm over the weekend so plenty of time for reading.

Brothers Phil and George run a cattle ranch out west, after the retirement of their Boston born-and-bred parents to Salt Lake City. Phil and George are a study in contrasts; briefly put, Phil is something of a bully while George is amiable and softspoken. Their usual routine is thrown into disarray when George marries the widow Rose Gordon and brings her back to the ranch. Phil immediately writes Rose off as an opportunistic gold-digger, engaging in a campaign of psychological terrorism that drives her to drink and only ends with the arrival of Rose’s son from her previous marriage.

I’m not sure why I’d never heard of The Power of the Dog, or even why I didn’t know anything about Thomas Savage before now. At any rate, you can’t know what you don’t know (the “unknown unknowns”), which is why I make room for those left field, happenstance book recommendations. This was never one I would have picked on its own merits, given its grim subject matter. Even the first page is, frankly, a bit off-putting with its depiction of Phil castrating a calf. But sometimes it’s worth it to push through the discomfort and try something out of your usual habits, and so it was here—Savage’s prose is masterful, economical yet no less rich and nuanced in its expression. Assigning just a single chapter for close reading (here I’m thinking of the second chapter, the story of Rose’s first marriage) would be a great piece of instruction for any writing course.

This unexpected appreciation is why I’m deeply skeptical about, and resistant to, any algorithm-based attempt to recommend books to me. They’ll never bring the same kind of out-of-the-blue suggestion. True, sometimes your friends have kind of crappy taste (no greater betrayal in my reading life than when people whose taste I trusted unironically recommended A Song of Ice and Fire to me), but sometimes they break your gestalt and introduce you to something that sticks with you.

Author: katherine

Stockholm-based translator and copyeditor of American extraction.

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