David Lloyd Book club April: The Power of The Dog.

Well! What an incredible book! I have to confess, I watched the film on Netflix first, which I don’t usually do if I want to read the book. I had heard it was a slow-burner and a friend who had seen it said they did not like it, which of course made me interested. Convinced I would enjoy it, I headed over to watch, and I loved it. I loved it so much, I got the book and chose it for the book club.

Like Marmite, the club had mixed reactions to it. In the book, the two wealthy Burbank brothers live on their inherited ranch in Montana in 1925. They could not be more different: Phil is a somewhat abhorrent character who tends to put his brother, George, down. George is a kind and shy type. We are also introduced to Rose, who is widowed by her Doctor husband’s suicide, and her awkward and strange son, Peter. There is a lot of that background missed out in the film, and in the film the tension begins to build, as in the novel, with a tense scene in Rose’s restaurant when Phil bullies and humiliates Peter. Phil seems obsessed with overt and stereotypical masculinity and belittles anyone who does not fit this ideal for him. George, being kinder feels sorry for Rose and comforts her. Later, he marries her.

What follows in the novel (and film) is a brooding, emotionally charged dynamic between the 4 protagonists. Phil is just horrible in his bullying of Rose, driving her to drink, but later befriends Peter. In the book, this is done to further upset Rose whom he considers a gold digger, but in the film it is more ambiguous, and that ambiguity does start to be conveyed in the novel too, when the reader might feel that Phil has begin to like Peter, seeing himself in him.

The story explores Phil’s repressed homosexuality which he projects, as was common at the time, as aggressive masculinity. The film received some criticism, one of which unjustly claimed Cumberbatch was unconvincing as a cowboy. But this is entirely the point – Phil is a Harvard educated man who fell involve with his mentor, Bronco Henry, years ago and since Bronco Henry’s death he has played the part of the cowboy ever since.

The endless layers in the book, and the backdrop of the brooding setting remind the reader of Steinbeck, (Of Mice and Men and East of Eden in particular) but with a twist. My favourite part was the twist at the end – which I will NOT reveal! But I felt a great deal of sympathy for the objectionable Phil at the end; things are not what they seem. In the same way as I always enjoyed James Mason’s monochrome villains onscreen in preference to the heroic Stewart Granger, I found I began to feel less enthusiastic about the less talented and somewhat shallow Rose and George. As for Peter, well, see for yourself. Admirably clever, in a psychopathic sort of way.

The group were divided, as it should be. Some gave up, disliking Phil’s menacing potential for violence; others enjoyed the sense of just desserts; and a couple felt as I did, enjoying the complex mixed emotions. All the ‘American Dream’ references are there, but the driving force is undoubtedly the struggle with sexuality. It is a darkly uncomfortable critique on a society that tried to force people to conform to a type.

I read it twice and I’ve seen the film twice. It is on my list of favourite books and a definite favourite film. Do have a read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: