The Power of the Dog

A Novel


By Thomas Savage

Afterword by Annie Proulx

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Now an Academy Award-winning Netflix film by Jane Campion, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst: Thomas Savage's acclaimed Western is "a pitch-perfect evocation of time and place" (Boston Globe) for fans of East of Eden and Brokeback Mountain.

Set in the wide-open spaces of the American West, The Power of the Dog is a stunning story of domestic tyranny, brutal masculinity, and thrilling defiance from one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in American literature. The novel tells the story of two brothers — one magnetic but cruel, the other gentle and quiet — and of the mother and son whose arrival on the brothers’ ranch shatters an already tenuous peace. From the novel’s startling first paragraph to its very last word, Thomas Savage’s voice — and the intense passion of his characters — holds readers in thrall.

"Gripping and powerful…A work of literary art." —Annie Proulx, from her afterword



The Pass

Lona Hanson

A Bargain with God

Trust in Chariots

The Power of the Dog

The Liar

Daddy's Girl

A Strange God

Midnight Line

The Sheep Queen

(originally published under the title
I Heard My Sister Speak My Name)

Her Side of It

For Mary, with Love

The Corner of Rife and Pacific


Afterword copyright © 2001 by Annie Proulx

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group

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New York, NY 10017

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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-08270-9


PHIL always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. "Mountain oysters," Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they'd do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil's brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people's goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

The ranch hands and cowboys wore horsehide gloves ordered out of the catalogues of Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward—Sears and Sawbuck and Monkey Ward, as Phil named those houses. After work or on Sundays when the bunkhouse was steamy with the water for washing clothes or shaving, fragrant with the odor of bay rum on those about to go into town, they would struggle with their order blanks, hunched over like huge children, biting the end of the pencil, frowning at their crabbed handwriting, puzzling over the shipping weight and the location of their postal zone. Often they gave up the struggle, sighed and turned the job over to one more familiar with writing and numbers, someone among them who had got as far as high school, one who sometimes wrote letters for them to fathers and mothers and remembered sisters.

But how marvelous to get the order into the mails, how delicious and terrible to wait for the parcel from Seattle or Portland that might include with the new gloves, new shoes for town, phonograph records, a musical instrument to charm away the loneliness of winter evenings when the winds howled like wolves down from the mountain peaks.

Our very best guitar. Play Spanish-style music and chords. Wide ebony fingerboard, fine resonant fan-ribbed natural spruce top, rosewood sides and back, genuine horn bindings. This is a real Beauty.

Waiting for their order to get to the post office fifteen miles down the road, they read again and again such descriptions, reliving the filling out of the order blank, honing their anticipation. Genuine horn bindings!

"Well, you fellows looking over the old Wish Book?" Phil would ask, standing by the stove and stamping the snow off his feet. He would look out into the room, spraddle-legged, his bare hands clasped behind him. Over the years a few of the young men tried to imitate his habit of going bare-handed, maybe seeking his approving smile or nod, but their imitations went unnoticed and at last they took up their gloves again. "Looking over the old Wish Book?"

"Sure thing, Phil," they'd say, proud to call him by his first name, but closing the catalogue under cover of conversation that he might not see them lusting after the pert women who modeled corsets and underwear. How they admired his detachment! Half-owner of the biggest ranch in the valley, he could afford any damned thing he wanted, any automobile, Lozier or Pierce-Arrow, say, but he desired no car. His brother George had once expressed a wish to buy a Pierce, and Phil had said, "Want to look like some Jew?" And that was the end of it. No, Phil didn't drive. His saddle, hanging by a stirrup from a peg in the big long log barn, was a good twenty years old; his spurs were of good plain steel—no fancy silver inlays, not such spurs as crowded the dreams of others; he wore plain shoes instead of boots, scorned the trimmings and trappings of the cowboy, although in his younger days he was as good a rider as any of them, a better roper than George. With all his money and family, he was just folks, dressed like any hired hand in overalls and blue chambray shirt; three times a year George drove him into Herndon for a haircut; he sat in the front seat of the old Reo stiff as an Indian in his stiff town suit, his imperious nose hawklike under the slate-gray fedora, his jaw jutting. So he sat in Whitey Judd's barber chair, his long, thin, weathered hands motionless on the cool arms of the chair while his accumulated hair fell in piles to the white-tiled floor around him.

A drummer, a natty dresser with a flashing stickpin, had once chuckled and questioned Whitey.

"Wouldn't laugh, if I was you, mister," Whitey remarked. "He could buy and sell you fifty times over, or anybody else in the valley except his brother. I'm proud to have him sit in my chair, mighty proud." Snip, snip, snip. "Him and his brother are partners."

Just so they were, and more than partners, more than brothers. They rode together at roundup time, talked together as if they'd met for the first time, talked of the old days in high school and at a California university where George, as a matter of fact, had flunked out the same year that Phil was graduated. Phil recalled tricks he'd played on other students, friends they'd had—high jinks. Phil had been the bright one, George the plodder.

It was something of a joint decision when they sold their steers each fall or bought a Morgan stud to improve the saddle stock. Each year Phil looked forward to hunting in October when the willows along the creeks had turned a rusty red and the haze from distant forest fires hung like veils over the mountain peaks. You saw the two of them with their packhorses riding across the flats toward the mountains, Phil with his stubby carbine, or with his thirty-caliber. It was not unusual to see such a relationship between brothers, Phil tall and angular, staring with his day-blue eyes into the distance, then at the ground close by; George stocky and imperturbable, jogging along on a stocky and imperturbable bay horse. They made wagers—who would sight and shoot the first elk? How Phil did relish a meal of elk liver! At night they made camp below timberline and sat cross-legged before the fire talking of the old days and of plans for a new barn that never materialized because that would mean tearing down the old one; they unrolled their beds side by side and together listened in the dark to the song of a tiny stream, no wider than a man's stride, the very source of the Missouri River. They slept, and woke to find hoarfrost.

So it had been for years, Phil now just forty. So too they slept in the room they had as boys, in the very brass beds, rattling around now in the big log house since those Phil referred to as the Old Folks had taken off to spend their autumn years in a suite of rooms in the best hotel in Salt Lake City. There the Old Gent dabbled in the stock market and the Old Lady played mah-jongg and dressed for dinner as she always had. Closed off, the Old Folks' bedroom gathered dust kicked up by the automobiles —more and more of them every day—that putt-putted up the road out front. In that room the air grew stale, the Old Lady's geraniums died, the black marble clock stopped.

The brothers kept Mrs. Lewis, the cook, who lived in a cabin out back, and she found time to clean the house after a fashion, complaining at every movement of the broom. Gone now was the girl, last of a series, who had waited table and slept upstairs in a tiny room. Her presence might have looked strange in a bachelor establishment, but still the brothers comported themselves with almost shocking modesty as if women still stalked the house. George bathed once a week, entering the bathroom fully clothed, locking the door behind him; silently he bathed, with small splashing and no song; fully clothed he emerged, but followed by the telltale steam. Phil never used the tub, for he did not like it known he bathed. Instead, he bathed once a month in a deep hole in the creek known only to George and to him and, once, one other. He looked around before he went there, should there be prying eyes, and he dried himself in the sun, for carrying a towel would have cried out his purpose. In the fall and spring he had sometimes to break a crust of ice. In the winter months he didn't bathe. Never had the brothers appeared naked before each other; before they undressed at night they snapped off the electric lights—the first in the valley.

Nowadays they ate their breakfast with the hired men in the back dining room, but took their dinner and supper as before in the front dining room off white linen, and the tools they used were sterling. It is not easy or desirable to slough off old habits, or to forget who you are, a Burbank with the best connections in Boston, back East in Massachusetts.

It sometimes worried Phil that George got a far-off look, rocking in his chair, for George's eyes would suddenly stare out across to the mountain called Old Tom thirty miles away and twelve thousand feet, a beloved mountain, and George would rock and rock and rock, looking across the flat.

"What's the matter, old-timer?" Phil would ask. "Old mind wandering again?"

"What's that?"

"I say, your mind wandering again?"

"No, no." George would slowly cross his heavy legs.

"How about a little cribbage?" They had kept careful score over the years.

To Phil, George's trouble was that he didn't engage his mind. George was no great reader, like Phil. To George, the Saturday Evening Post was the limit; like a child, George was moved by stories of animals and nature. Phil read Asia, Mentor, Scientific American and books of travel and philosophy the fancy relatives back East sent by the dozen at Christmastime. His was a keen, sharp, inquiring mind—an engaged mind—that confounded cattle-buyers and salesmen who supposed that one who dressed as Phil dressed, who talked as Phil talked, must be simple and illiterate, one with such hair and such hands. But his habits and appearance required strangers to alter their conception of an aristocrat to one who can afford to be himself.

George had no hobbies, no lively interests. Phil worked in wood. He constructed the derricks that stacked the wild hay—timothy, redtop and clover—hewing out the huge beams with adze and plane. With those clever naked hands he carved those tiny chairs no higher than an inch in Sheraton or the style of Adam; his fingers moved like spiders' legs, paused briefly sometimes as if to think, for Phil's fingers had a private intelligence lodged, perhaps, in their padded tips. Seldom did his knife slip, and if it did, he scorned the iodine or Phenol-Sodique, two of the few medicines in the house, for as a family the Burbanks did not believe in medicine. His little wounds healed rapidly once he had wiped them with the blue bandanna he stuffed in a rear pocket.

Some who knew Phil said, "What a waste!" For ranching was no demanding or challenging occupation, once you had the ranch, and required brawn but little brain. Phil, people marveled, might have been anything—doctor, teacher, artisan, artist. He had shot, skinned and stuffed a lynx with skill that would have abashed a taxidermist. Easily he solved the mathematical puzzles in the Scientific American; his pencil flew. From the pages of the encyclopedia he taught himself chess, and often passed an hour solving the problems in the Boston Evening Transcript that arrived two weeks late. At the forge in the blacksmith shop he designed and hammered out intricate pieces of ornamental iron, firedogs, pokers shaped like swords and tridents; he wished he could have shared his gifts with George, who never caught fire, seldom even smoked, so to speak, who looked forward no longer even to the trips he made to Herndon in the Reo for the bank directors' meetings and lunch later at the Sugar Bowl Cafe.

"How about teaching you chess, Fatso?" Phil once asked, looking ahead to evenings before the fireplace. The name Fatso got George's goat.

"No, I don't think so, Phil."

"Why not, Fatso? Think it'd be a little tough for you?"

"I never was much of a one for games."

"You used to play cribbage. Pinochle, sometimes?"

"That's right, I did, didn't I?" And George would pick up the Saturday Evening Post and lose himself in some cheap fantasy.

Phil was a whistler, and a good one, his tone accurate as a flute's; he would whistle a merry tune and go into the bedroom and get out his banjo and pick away at "Red Wing" or "Hot Time in the Old Town." He had taught himself to play and it was fine to see those fingers leaping on the strings. Once it was not unusual, when he played, for George to pad quietly into the room and lie on the other brass bed and listen. But not lately.

Lately after a tune or two, Phil would get up from the edge of the bed where he sat playing, stand straight, put away the banjo and walk the path through the rustling rye-grass to the bunkhouse.

"Well, fellows," he would say, blinking his eyes against the white glare of the gas lamp.

Once one of the hired hands always rose to give him a chair, some cast-off chair from the Big House.

"Hey—don't bother" Phil always said, but someone always did bother—and fruitlessly, for Phil would accept neither chair nor gift from anybody. His visitations interrupted some discussion of whores, politics, horses or love and caused a silence that lasted until the clunk! of a length of firewood shifting in the stove emphasized that silence, and some man, terrified of silence, felt bound to speak.

"What you think of this Coolidge?" a man might ask, for eventually the Transcript found its way to the bunkhouse where it was used as waste and tinder, but only incidentally to read.

Then Phil would frown and roll a perfect cigarette with one hand. He knew the value of the pointed silence. "Well, I'll say one thing for him." Lighting the cigarette. "He's got the gumption to keep his trap shut." And Phil would laugh, and there would be a halting conversation, perhaps of Coolidge. Then maybe one of the younger fellows, hoping to flatter, would ask advice about ordering a saddle. Did Phil think a center-fire or a three-quarter rig the better? Was the Visalia saddle all it was cracked up to be?

At last Phil would look a little wistful. "Well, I guess you fellows must want to roll in."

"Oh, hell no, Phil." And there would follow more talk, perhaps of the work the next day, the overhauling of the mowing machines if the time was spring, the whereabouts of a bunch of wild horses, or Phil might tell an anecdote of Bronco Henry, that best of riders, that best of cowboys, who had taught Phil the art of braiding rawhide. Recently, having finished telling the fellows a story, Phil looked suddenly out the window over the top of the whispering rye-grass to the lighted bedroom window of the Big House. As he watched, the window went suddenly dark. George had not waited up!!

"Well, fellows" he said with a sad grin, "got to hit the hay"

When he had gone, one of the new loudmouthed young cowhands spoke right up. "Hey—he's sort of a lonely cuss, ain't he? Like about what we was saying before he come in, do you guess anybody ever loved him? Or maybe he ever loved anybody?" The oldest man in the bunkhouse stared at the young fellow. What the young fellow had said was unsuitable, even ugly. What had love to do with Phil? The oldest man in the bunkhouse reached down and patted the head of a little brown bitch that slept close. "I wouldn't want to be saying nothing about him and love. And if I was you, I wouldn't call him a cuss. It don't show respect."

"Well, hell," the young fellow said, blushing.

"You got to learn to show respect. You got an awful lot to learn about love."

In the fall the brothers with their hired hands trailed a thousand head of steers twenty-five miles down the road to the stockyards in the tiny settlement of Beech. Unless the weather was miserable, the rain beating out of the north, the sleet cutting the face or the cold hindering the circulation of the blood, the event had something of the quality of an outing, or picnic; the young fellows thought of the lunches Mrs. Lewis the cook had put up to be eaten at noon when the shadows hid under the sagebrush; they thought of the saloon across the highway from the yards and of the rooms over the saloon where the whores lived.

When the sun rose red and the frost fled from the surface of the short, dry grass, the herd was already lined out over the length of a half mile; caught under the bewitching spell of the dark and that holy quality of the dawn that turns men in upon themselves, the cowhands were silent and the brothers were silent, listening to the step-step-step of the cattle and the crackling sound of sagebrush crushed under cloven hoofs; squeak-squeak-squeak of saddle leather and the ringing of German silver bit chains. The new sun rising above the eastern hills showed a world so vast and hostile to individual hope that the young cowhands clung to memories of home, kitchen stoves, mothers' voices, the cloakroom at school and the cries of children let out at recess. Raising their chins, they fixed their eyes now on an abandoned log shack, opened to the weather, where stray horses in summer sought a little shade, where years before a man like them had failed; where the road wandered near a barbed wire fence, a rusty sign peppered with bullet holes urged them to chew a brand of tobacco that no longer existed; ahead, hunched over the pommel of his saddle, rode the oldest man in the bunkhouse, gray, lined of face, one who like them must have once dreamed of a little place, a few acres, a homestead, a few cattle, a green meadow, a woman to be a wife; God knew, maybe a child.

Then the sun loomed higher out of the hills and the new warmth nourished their hopes and they talked, laughed, joked; their plans would materialize; when they got to be old like that fellow up there hunched over his saddle, they would have a little place. They would have their money; they would make plans. In the meantime the nose of their horse was pointed toward the stockyards, to the saloon, to the women upstairs.

The brothers, too, had been silent in the darkness, known to each other only by their shapes, the lean one and the stocky one—by their shapes and the long familiar squeak of the other's saddle. So, thought Phil comfortably, they had always been silent at the beginning of a drive, thoughts turned inward upon the past, and the silence now told him that the past had not changed, not changed much. Yes, he did resent the stage, the dark green Stearns-Knight that nowadays blatted its way headlong through the herd of cattle—much too fast, if you asked Phil. Once the driver had dared sound his horn, and the noise had so frightened the cattle that Phil rode right over to the creeping car and, towering up there on his sorrel horse, he gave the driver a good piece of his mind. You should have seen the passengers in the back seat make themselves small!!

"God damn scissorbills," he growled. "George, did you hear that son of a bitch honk his horn. Dear good Jesus, they don't give a good hot damn how much weight they run off your stock. Like to see every damn car blowed up."

But George, loyal to the Reo (as he was loyal to all he owned), looked ahead over the backs of the cattle. "Hell," he said. "Oh hell, Phil, man's got to go with the times."

"The times!" Phil said, and spit. Ten years before there was a proper stage with a real man there on the box, handling the reins, fine four-horse rig. "What was the driver's name, Fatso?" Phil asked George. He seldom forgot a name, but here was a way to launch into the new morning's conversation.

"Harmon," George said.

"By God, you're right." That got them back into the past, to when they were kids, got them back to where they could reminisce about Bronco Henry, back to the time of the last stinking Indians before the government got onto itself for a change and shipped them off to the reservation. Phil recalled to this day the swaybacked old horses the Indians rode away on, the rickety old buggies the old Indians piled themselves into. All one week the Indians had straggled past the ranch house on their way down to the reservation in southern Idaho, stirring up the dust and making the ranch dogs bark. Only the chief was not with them, that shifty old character. He had died.

Phil liked to recall to George the many times while trailing cattle down that his sharp eyes had fixed on Indian arrowheads which he picked up and added to his remarkable collection. He couldn't recall that George had ever found an arrowhead. Phil grinned to himself. How could he? For George always looked straight ahead, as he did now, over the dusty backs of the cattle.

Now exactly, Phil wondered, where should he begin the day's conversation? So special a day, this day. Should he begin with Bronco Henry? Or with an incident of last year—the car, trying to get through the river of cattle, that ran off the side into a ditch? Two women and a man, all in knickerbockers, damnedest thing you ever saw, and then there they gauped at the car tipped almost on its side, them just looking. Phil had been glad that George was in the lead of the herd, for George would have hooked onto the car with his rope and pulled them out, and they wouldn't have learned their lesson.

Or begin this morning with the most important fact, that this was the twenty-fifth year! they had been together driving cattle? Twenty-five years! How proud they had felt that time, and how old! To Phil there was some kind of stuff in the fact that they made the first round trip in the nice round year of nineteen hundred, nineteen hundred and naught. Jesus! Jesus! Bronco Henry wasn't older then than he and George were now—not much older, to tell the truth, than the young fellows with them today, dressed up in their fancy duds. They didn't know who the hell they were any more, the young fellows—cowhands or moving picture people. Phil had never seen a moving picture and by God never would, but these young fellows had magazines about the moving pictures in the bunkhouse, and a fellow name of W.S. Hart had got to be sort of their God. Look how they creased their hats now, look at the silk bandannas they knotted around their necks, and the fancy chaps! He'd heard that one of them had sent away for made-to-order boots with fancy inlays—spent a month's pay on some damn thing to put on his feet. And then wondered why they ended up on the county! Well, Phil mused, there you were. The more ignorant people were, the more they felt they had to decorate their backs.

George had sort of moseyed over to the right, and now Phil moved diagonally through the plodding cattle, humming soothingly so they wouldn't get their dander up. "Well, Georgie boy," he grinned, "I guess this is it."

For brothers, they rode differently, sat so differently on their saddle horses, the one slouching easily, the reins loose in his naked hands; the other straight, rigid in the saddle, gut pulled in, looking straight ahead. "It?" George asked, turning his head. "What's it, Phil?"

"What's it? What's it, Fatso boy? Today is twenty-five years. Nineteen hundred and nothing. Nineteen naught, naught. Recall that?"

"Fact is, I forgot," George said.

Now, how could he have forgot, Phil wondered. What had he thought about all year? "Twenty-five years. Sort of makes it sort of a silver anniversary, or whatever," Phil said, "don't it?" In jocular or angry moods, Phil used bad grammar to point up his words.

"Long time ago," George remarked.

"Well," Phil said, "not too God damned long." He had not mentioned the matter to emphasize how long it had been since they were kids. Phil himself didn't feel a year older than when he was twelve and George ten—only one hell of a lot smarter. "But I'll tell you one thing, George, we had some great old times."


  • "A masterpiece...Were there justice in the world, we would all have read Savage’s modern classic in high school."—Bonnie Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • "I never met Tom Savage but we corresponded and spoke on the telephone several times after he contacted me saying he had read my short story 'Brokeback Mountain.' At that time I did not know this writer's books and he was kind enough to send me a copy of Power of the Dog which I read with dawning realization that here was a fine western writer whose work had been overlooked, perhaps because of homophobic prejudice."—Annie Proulx
  • "A rich and challenging psychodrama...with echoes of East of Eden and Brokeback Mountain."—Peter Beech, The Guardian
  • "Savage writes like thunder and lightning...Some books are like aquifers under the desert. They rest patiently, bubbling up in springs when we most need them."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
  • "A pitch-perfect evocation of time and place...Savage is a master of narrative technique."—Amanda Heller, Boston Globe
  • "Thomas Savage is a writer of the first order, and he possesses in abundance the novelist's highest art-the ability to illuminate and move."—The New Yorker
  • "Thomas Savage is a writer of real consequence...a masterful novelist."—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
  • "The Power of the Dog offers so many pleasures readers will be forgiven if they do not immediately notice that it also engages the grandest themes-among them, the dynamics of the family, the varieties of loves, and the ethos of the American West. Put simply, The Power of the Dog is a masterpiece."—Larry Watson, author of Montana 1948

On Sale
Nov 23, 2021
Page Count
304 pages
Back Bay Books