Mar 26, 2009

John Goes Nuts


Acknowledgments
When we met in 2007 to discuss The Road, John was determined to make our meal memorable, if not palatable. On Tuesday, our meal was both. John evoked the castration scene at the beginning of The Power of the Dog by serving mountain oysters, overnighted from a cattle ranch in Arizona and deep fried with a choice of seasonings (and, for those still not satiated, they were also ground into beef for taco hors d'oeuvres). John then cleansed our palates with a spread that included iceberg salads, seared flank steaks, and a fine strawberry shortcake. As excellent as the main course was, John’s hospitality—much like Savage’s novel—was all about the opening act.

We should also acknowledge the character actors who appeared at our dinner. Paul, in a guest role, presented himself as John’s kin, a cameo he was ill-suited for given his thoughtfulness and intellect. George and Larry, both sporting chambray shirts, denim, and boots, failed to convince us they were the lawful successors to the Burbank ranch. And then there was Stan, flaunting flannel from Abba Dabba and Bitch and sharing ranching insights plagiarized from his Wyoming in-laws.

Finally, displaying a subtlety he is not normally known for, Garth arrived with a six-pack of Two Below, a pale ale from Ft. Collins. However, it wasn’t its taste (quite drinkable) or its provenance (home to those book-loving Great Apes) that captured our fancy; instead, we were impressed at Garth’s clever pairing of beer brand with beef part. From beers to balls to strawberries, our evening was a testicular success.

The Book
Set on a Montana ranch in 1924, The Power of the Dog explores the fraternal tensions between the wealthy Burbank brothers when one (the quiet, plodding George) marries and brings his wife and stepson to live at the ranch. Phil, the accomplished older brother, sets out to destroy the relationship and, in the end, is himself undone. As Garth noted, the opening castration scene is truly the story’s metaphor: the remainder of the novel depicts the end of a way of life, the destruction of longstanding family bonds, and an emerging feminine influence at the ranch.

The book’s most provocative issue (homosexuality) generated a heated discussion, with Stan taking plenty of arrows for his insistence that Annie Proulx, in typical fashion, misrepresented the main character’s sexual orientation. To the rest of us, Phil’s repressed homosexuality was evident, though not central to the plot. We were more interested in who the “dog” of the title referred to, which character deserved the label of hero, and the ranch life so bleakly described by Savage.

We agreed with Tom that this story was heavily character-driven, with Paul that change (and its absence) was a key theme, and with Doug that Phil’s character symbolized a disappearing legacy of the old West. Our few quibbles included Peter’s criticism of the old-fashioned dialog (it was rather cowpoke) and Garth’s claim that all of the characters would have benefited from a regimen of anti-depressants.

The most stimulating discussions aren’t always generated by the best books. In this case, our 7.3 rating—while good—failed to reflect just how engaged we were by this satisfying little novel. Thanks for an excellent recommendation, John.

Next Up
We had a list of fine choices from Peter, and ended up in a tie (7-7) between The Queen’s Gambit and In the Lake of the Woods. In our final round of voting, National Book Award Winner Tim O’Brien bested Nebula Award nominee Walter Tevis. And so we look forward to reading O’Brien’s purposely confusing, possibly fictionalized retrospective on the Vietnam Era.

4 comments:

garth said...
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garth said...

As for the Two Below, I heard one of the guys describe it: "smooth and diminutive at first blush, it has a creamy head and a ticklish yet satisfying finish that makes that brew, though not as hard as Roy's brandy, one that will surely get you up again and again, crying out for more." Can't remember exactly who said that....

jeff said...

Andrew and the MBC-

Congrats on your 20th meeting! Prove all those doubting wives and girlfriends wrong; men can (and do obviously) read and discuss more than sports.

What a great meeting report! You guys are doing so well as a book group: eating and drinking VERY well, making appropriate fun of each other, and really having some good discussions. It also seems that more and more guys are getting more and more out of each book.

Did any parallels come up between your last two books? Brothers? Revenge? Farm/ranch settings? Style?

Keep on reading and I'll keep enjoying your meeting reports.

PS to Garth: your beer review was laugh outloud funny. One day we'll share a Two Below or two or three . . .

andrew said...

It's interesting that no one mentioned Edgar Sawtelle all evening, even though the parallels are obvious. Maybe the tones of the books were so dissimilar that no one thought to make the comparison. As for Garth and his LOL comment, I think the man's hopelessly transparent. I could swear I heard HIM say those very words on Tuesday.