This year’s Oscars ceremony may mark a return to showbusiness-as-usual after years of upheaval, but all eyes will be on the awards’ frontrunner The Power of the Dog. Directed by Jane Campion, distributed by Netflix and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, it’s a critically acclaimed cinematic tinderbox set against Montana’s bleak beauty. But the film has also cast a spotlight on a novel that – for all its literary merit – has been as chronically overlooked as its fascinating author.
If you’ve never heard of Thomas Savage, you’re not alone. Upon publishing his fourth novel, a staffer at Random House may have called him “the new Truman Capote”, but he never achieved such fame. The Montana-born and raised author died in 2003, aged 88, by which time his literary career had dwindled to a halt, his final manuscripts failing to achieve acceptance by the publishing industry.
“It’s a story of neglect, bad sales, fantastic writing and fantastic reviews,” Alan Weltzien, Savage’s biographer, tells me over the phone from Dillon, Montana, where Savage grew up. “He's one of the best novelists from our part of the States, there's no question. And the irony is that every single one of the 13 novels collected great reviews.” So why was his work so overlooked, and how did one end up inspiring an Oscars frontrunner 65 years after its publication?
Published in 1967, The Power of the Dog is a taut tension-wire of a book. Two brothers – the malevolent, autodidactic Phil, who is 40, and the solid, quiet George, three years his junior – share a bedroom in their parents’ sprawling ranch just as they have always done. Phil is a peculiar man: he speaks Greek, he whittles miniature furniture. But he is brutally homophobic and misogynistic, and simmers with joyless menace. This is the environment into which George brings Rose Gordon, a pretty woman widowed by suicide, and her quiet, strange teenage son Peter. While the Hollywood version makes its story of the uneasy matrix between these characters, Savage’s book considers broader themes: masculinity and its confines, the lifelong undoing of sexual frustration, the unique claustrophobia that can emerge beneath even the biggest skies.
Savage was born in 1915 in Salt Lake City, but had moved to a ranch in Montana by the time he was five with his mother and new stepfather. He was adopted by his mother’s new husband, but nevertheless felt an outsider on the cattle ranch; by the time he was in his teens, Savage had been sent away to Dillon for high school. By 22, he had left the barren, windswept solitude of the Northern Rockies for the cusp of America’s Atlantic Coast – Massachusetts, then Maine – with his college friend-turned-wife, Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
“He lived most of his life well away from Montana,” says Weltzien, “but no other writer writes about Dillon as he did. He wrote this town over and over again, even though he lived on the coast of Maine state. Tom Savage had a photographic memory. He never forgot a facade. He never forgot a voice. Never forgot a name. And he teases a lot in his novels. He's playing right on the boundary between autobiography and fiction.”
Savage’s favourite period to write in, according to Weltzien, is the inter-war years: between 1918 and 1939. The Power of the Dog was among these, set in 1925. Like the young Savage, Peter Gordon – the novel’s beguiling protagonist – doesn’t fit in with ranch life and is sent away to school. In him, he writes, “Phil knew, God knows he knew, what it was to be a pariah, and he had loathed the world, should it loathe him first.”
However, Savage’s career also had a golden period – creatively, at least – in which “he produces not only his greatest novel, but unleashes this stream of top novels,” Weltzien says. Savage published six between 1967 and 1977. The impetus? A torrid and twisted love affair.
Savage married Elizabeth in 1939 and went on to father their three children, but he told her he was gay when he proposed, believing she could “cure” him. By the 1950s, however, Savage was living as a gay man, Weltzien says, to the extent that his literary agent introduced him to a handsome 20-year-old: Tomie dePaola, who would go on to be a prolific and well-loved children’s writer. “Savage basically left the family for 18 months,” says Weltzien. “He was formal in some ways, one could argue old-fashioned: they exchanged rings in an Episcopal chapel in Boston to solemnise their relationship.” It was not, however, to last. When Savage’s older son ended up in a fight with dePaola, the author broke the relationship off.
In the aftermath, Savage wrote “an overtly gay novel” that he was told was unpublishable when he submitted it to his agent in the early Sixties – despite, Weltzien points out, “Giovanni’s Room being published here in 1956”. Savage took the manuscript and threw the whole thing into the swirl of the Atlantic Ocean. What turned up next was The Power of the Dog, which smothered its homosexual longing under hatred and shame. The New York Times praised Savage’s “magic characters” and ability to place the reader “in a private world of his own and the author’s imagination”.
But the sales never manifested. By 1988, The Power of the Dog had its first reprinting, courtesy of Van Vactor & Goodheart, a small imprint from the editors of literary quarterly Canto. Again, Savage’s book languished.
As with many things in publishing, it was good luck that resulted in The Power of the Dog’s millennial revival. Emily Salkin Takoudes, then an editorial assistant at American publisher Little, Brown, unearthed a first edition of the novel among her grandmother’s collection – along with his 1977 novel, I Heard My Sister Speak My Name (later titled The Sheep Queen). Taken in by Savage’s work, she urged the publisher to reprint them, and in 2001 they did.
“That started his renaissance,” says Weltzien, adding that Savage and Salkin Takoudes embarked upon an unlikely friendship. “He was supposed to come out to Missoula in 2001, where I was on a panel and met Emily, but he was too ill. He didn’t make the trip across the country to come back to his home state.” Weltzien doesn’t sugar-coat Savage’s final years: the acclaim couldn’t redeem more than a decade of rejection. “By high school, he knew he wanted to be a writer. He said that if he wasn’t working on a novel, he felt worthless. And by the Nineties he had a couple of other manuscripts, but he had no more success.”
While The Power of the Dog was published by Chatto and Windus in 1967, it took another fluke for it to get published in the UK in 2016. Author Nicholas Shakespeare, who first heard about The Power of the Dog in his local, when poet Keith Musgrove offered to lend him a copy of the 2001 Little, Brown edition, says, “He dropped it off with me and my heart slightly sank, you know, as can happen when people recommend books.” Shakespeare laughs: “But then I started to read, and the atmosphere and the writing – I just thought this book was stunning.”
A week later, Shakespeare was at lunch with Rachel Cugnoni, then publisher at Vintage. “She was talking about Stoner [by John Edward Williams, which became a belated bestseller in 2006], and how she was looking for more overlooked American titles. I immediately said, ‘Well, you must read this’.” Later, Cugnoni emailed him, saying the rights to The Power of the Dog had been bought. It was released in 2016; The Sunday Times said the book “without a doubt deserves belatedly to reach a wider audience”; The Guardian said it was better than Stoner, with literary critic Erica Wagner writing: “This is the perfect example of a book that never quite made it to the rank of classic… but is more than worthy of resurrection now.”
Two years later, and Jane Campion touches down in Bozeman, Montana. She had left New Zealand to visit Weltzien, along with The Power of the Dog’s producer Tanya Seghatchian, to visit the land that shaped Savage’s youth and lingered in his work. Campion was considering retirement before being given a copy of the book by her stepmother, in 2017. She was unable to put it down again. “I just thought ‘Oh man, this is gonna be a big one’”, she told The Guardian. “I read the book and loved it and afterwards I just kept thinking about it… I needed to do it.”
“I can’t think that anybody reading it wouldn’t love it,” Shakespeare tells me, over the phone. “It’s so modern, so well-written. You think, why haven’t we read this book before?”
Nineteen-sixty-seven; 1988; 2001; 2016. Could 2022 be the year that Thomas Savage finally ascends the literary pantheon? In 2001, Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx introduced The Power of the Dog. In it, she wrote: “Some books are like aquifers under the desert. They rest patiently, bubbling up in springs when we most need them.”
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Image: Flynn Shore/Penguin