We Think the World of You
by J. R. Ackerley
Celestial Arts, $5.95

We Think the World of You is a story of unnatural love between a man and his dog. J. R. Ackerley's novel, published in 1960 but generally unavailable here until this recent paperback re-issue, concerns a middle-aged man whose ex-sailor boyfriend goes to jail for housebreaking -- leaving Frank, the older man, to look after his working-class parents, his passive-aggressive wife Megan, and their three children, including her twin daughters from a previous marriage. Frank performs these obligations with a stolid mixture of natural generosity, homosexual guilt, and cold-blooded calculation.

He gets along fine with Johnny's shabby parents, Millie and Tom -- at least with Millie, who is only too happy to sit and badmouth the despised Megan, with her filthy legs and her sullen ten-year-olds. But his fantasy -- his fixation -- is to rescue his handsome sailor from this dreary existence, from Millie's stuffy kitchen, from Megan's shrill helplessness, and go off to live together in some primitive paradise as Ideal Friends. Trouble is, Johnny is serving a 12-month sentence in the slammer where the restricted numbers of letters and visits generally go to wives rather than Ideal Friends. And when Johnny fails to show any imagination in dealing with this complicated emotional situation, Frank turns his attentions to a more accessible if unlikely surrogate: Johnny's dog Evie.

"How pretty she was! How elegantly tailored her neat sable gray, two-piece costume! Her sharp watchful face was framed in a delicate Elizabethan ruff, which frilled out from the lobes of her ears and covered all her throat and breast with a snowy shirt front." In Evie, Frank finds not only another beautiful object fit for worship, another jewel ripe for rescue from the suffocating ordinariness of working-class life, but a kindred spirit. Taking Evie on the daily constitutional that cranky old Tom can't be bothered with, Frank soon discovers the dog is a warm, friendly, horribly neglected beast whose bounteous love is going to waste. "Day after day, day after day, nothing, nothing: the giving and the never getting; the hoping and the waiting for something that never comes; loneliness and frustration...I ground out the hideous words aloud as I hurled the stick for the last time." In detailing the transference of Frank's affections from Johnny to Evie, Ackerley masterfully portrays the power of romantic obsession: the rediscovery of "delight," the creation of a world unto itself, the reckless disregard for anything besides the loved one (including oneself). The minuscule details accumulate -- he extracts Evie from her keepers for periods of time, endures the insulting silent of Johnny and the whiny phone calls from Megan -- as he plans for the day when he will have his two loved ones all to himself, a scene in which Ackerley's prose reaches the height of its delicacy: "And when the time of their arrival drew near, I went out on to my veranda so that I might steal from Time the extra happiness of watching them approach."

Have you ever loved someone so much that you stood in the window to "steal from Time the extra happiness of watching them approach"?

The passion contained in We Think the World of You is equaled only by its devastating self-awareness. The reader begins to detect early in this brief tale (Ackerley referred to it as an "Adult Fairy Tale") the delusions of the narrator: his idealization of Johnny, his transparent self-projection onto Evie, his odious class-consciousness and condescension toward Millie and Tom, his misogyny and irrational hatred of Megan, his utter impatience with their dogged (sorry) loyalties and flimsy emotions, his all-round superior attitude. So it comes as a shock when he turns his penetrating gaze inward and acknowledges what had seemed entirely unconscious. "Say what one might against these people, their foolish frames could not bear the weight of iniquity I had piled upon them; they were, in fact, perfectly ordinary people behaving in a perfectly ordinary way...Their problems...had been real problems, and the worlds they so frequently said they thought of each other apparently seemed less flimsy to them than they had appeared to me when I tried to sweep them all away." It's that overused expression of Millie's -- the casual endearment that makes up the book's title -- that haunts Frank the most; he learns the hard way, and somewhat to his horror, how every individual viewpoint changes the meaning of "we," "the world," and "you."

Certain aspects of We Think the World of You -- the intricately streamlined prose, the graceful narrative style ("its combination of the reminiscent and the dramatic," as Ackerley's lifelong friend E.M. Forster termed it), the sexual predilections, the canine connection -- will be familiar to readers of My Father and Myself, Ackerley's 1968 posthumous memoir, and My Dog Tulip, his semi-legendary animal study depicting the habits of his Alsatian bitch Queenie (also known affectionately as "Loonie Weenie" and "Weenie Woonie"). Ackerley didn't write much in his 70 years: one novel, one autobiography, one dog book (all mentioned above), one travel book (Hindoo Holiday), one play (The Prisoners of War), and one volume of poetry (Micheldever & Other Poems). He spent most of his professional life as literary editor of the BBC's publication, the Listener, which one could only learn about from his one book of correspondence (The Ackerley Letters). For his paltry output, Ackerley considered himself a failure, yet Christopher Isherwood has pronounced that "each (book) in its different way is a masterpiece." These books are hard to come by -- I found a battered paperback of My Dog Tulip for 50 cents in Harvard Square once, and I think the letters (published by Harcourt Brace) are on remainder at the Strand, while Hindoo Holiday is an expensive rarity. But they are decidedly worth the search, not just for the quality of writing (perfect elocution could be taught by reading his sentences aloud) but also for the quality of passion Ackerley sought to steal from Time.

Soho News, September 1, 1981