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A Year with Short Novels: Of Dogs & Men

By (November 1, 2010) 3 Comments

We Think the World of You

By J.R. Ackerley
Originally published in 1960
Reprinted in 2000 by New York Review Books

This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.

J.R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You charts an unlikely course of a love affair. The romance is marked by profound need, awe at beauty, and stinging jealousy. Barriers of class and circumstance are encountered. Callow onlookers try to keep the lovers apart. But it’s futile: once together, the pair will slide toward a dark, closed circuit of mutual possessiveness—and real love. “As soon as Evie entered the room my fate…was finally signed and sealed,” Frank, the narrator, observes of his passion.

That Evie is not a person but a large dog should warn away anyone expecting a predictable story. We Think the World of You is an idiosyncratic novel, by turns artful, mordant, and bizarre. Its twists constantly surprise. In a study of Frank’s loneliness, Ackerley creates absurd scenarios from the rigid British class system, and wittily conveys the tacit bonds that grow between humans and animals. The grace of his prose ruthlessly illuminates the blind spots of self-interested human behavior.  Evie herself is a gorgeous and vixenish presence, but Frank is first infatuated with her owner, Johnny. The novel explores the contortions homosexual love was forced to perform when it was taboo and still illegal—but ultimately pivots on love for a female dog. Ackerley charts this strange course with aplomb and intensity. As the tale builds to its improbable finish, the shadow of breakdown grows.

The seed for all that will happen is a crime. The story begins with jaggedly comic dialogue between Frank, an educated middle class office worker, and Johnny, a younger working-class man about to be sent to prison for burglary. That Johnny is Frank’s lover is hotly implied but never outright said—the novel was published in 1960 and homosexuality would remain illegal in Britain for almost a further decade. Instead, Frank tosses out barbed criticism of Johnny’s wife, Megan, and Johnny pleads for Frank to take care of his dog, Evie. The two bitches are humorously confused:

“She’s expectin’.”

“I thought she was only a puppy?”

“No, Megan.”

I struck my forehead.

Frank begs off taking care of the dog. The compromise reached is that he will visit Johnny’s mother, Millie, pay Johnny’s back rent, and continue to support his family: “But whatever I do, Johnny….I do for you. I wouldn’t cross the road to help that tart of yours.”

Claustrophobic meetings follow at the flat Millie shares with her brutish husband Tom and Johnny’s bratty son Dickey follow. Frank and Millie share a strong bond in loving Johnny; Frank appreciates “her forth-rightness.” She obviously appreciates his beneficence. Frank’s vague contempt for Tom and Dickey is evident, as is the fact that he clings to these meetings because they provide thin connection to Johnny. This balance begins to change with the addition of Evie to the company. Over the course of many visits, Frank’s vague interest in a “creature” that licks his face deepens. As she quickly grows from a puppy to a lovely dog, he is cowed by her beauty. Pressured into taking her for a walk, he is exhilarated when he unclips her lead: “I was touched by her own gratitude, which sent her flying back to me from time to time….What a wretched fate, I thought, for so large and active a beast to be condemned to that poky house and this dismal district.”

Knowing that such a noble canine is often confined to Millie’s scullery closet sickens Frank. When he realizes that Tom beats Evie for her restlessness, he resolves to create a better life for her. As Millie and Tom prove reluctant to release their pet, Frank’s growing obsession with the dog forces absurd machinations: pleading letters, conveying Evie onto a train, keeping her under his desk at work, inventing country holidays to get the privilege of having her again, even visiting loathed Megan to send messages about Evie to Johnny.

Such a summary elides the huge iceberg of the implicit. If the novel itself is brief, what it leaves unstated speaks volumes. Frank is a peculiar and pitiful hero. The reader is shaken by the poignancy of his desperate desire to trade cash for romantic loyalty, the loneliness revealed by his resentment of Johnny’s family. The strong sense of Frank’s vinegary personality is imparted through implication, not introspection. The undercurrents of homosexuality and Frank’s keen, thwarted yearning radiate subtly from an early description of Johnny’s body viewed in an old photograph:

It had been taken during his insubordinate career as a sailor, and I gazed up at it again with a pang. How attractive he had been with his short, strong, lightly balanced figure and springing gait. The whole shaft of his beautiful neck, his wide shoulders and deep chest, his narrow hips, everything that he had had been almost effeminately displayed by that extraordinary close-fitting costume of ribbons, bows, and silks. And what fun he had been, so lively and so gay. . . . A momentary weak feeling of anger and self-pity took me at the thought of what he had been and what marriage had done to him. Boy though he still was to my older mind, the straight back was now a trifle bowed….

This description looms over the rest of the work, just as Johnny’s later description of Frank as a “good-‘earted old geezer” insinuates all the younger man’s confused tenderness. Amid Frank’s urgent attentions, Evie invisibly becomes proxy for the lover he has longed to dote on for years. Secrets and self-delusion fuel the novel, giving it a dark, off-center energy.

Much of this energy inheres in Evie, whose silent, striking presence like a lightning rod draws out the flaws of the humans who surround her. When Millie’s husband, Tom, strikes Evie with a “grinding blow” to discipline her, Frank has “an unpleasant, a quite frightening, feeling that, for some reason, Tom Winder hated me and that the blow he had dealt the dog had really been aimed at me.” As Frank goes to greater and greater lengths to procure the dog, Millie expresses bafflement at his single-minded fixation on Evie. We empathize with Frank’s pained aggravation when he is denied the dog; as he contemplates theft and extortion to be with Evie, great comedy grows from actions disproportionate to their object.

Still shot from Paul Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip, based on a 1956 book by Ackerley

But the canine drama contains a stronger, sadder note. Millie and Megan’s incomprehension of what he’s experiencing – and Frank’s annoyance at their incomprehension – underscores the alien nature of the desire that’s come over him. Frank boils with love for Johnny, while those around him offer vague platitudes and concentrate on concerns of children, health, and money. Frank has been pushed into a crabbed, sour life.The title cliché is repeated again and again by Johnny and his family in defense of their mutual devotion (“he thinks the world of her, he do”). But the repetition of the expression and Frank’s hamstrung reaction to it come to symbolize exclusion, that the world most people inhabit exists apart from his own. The unconditional, protective devotion of a dog may indeed be his best chance at love.

For the first two thirds of the novel, Frank is constantly (and resentfully) forced to the narrative edges by family drama. Johnny and the rest take him for granted while he seethes and withers based on their treatment. When he gets out of prison, Johnny discovers his treasured dog has become deeply attached to Frank and forgotten her original owner. The passion of the two men contracts to a love triangle, centered on the attentions of the dog. A thwarted supporting player to Johnny earlier, Evie transforms Frank into a romantic leading man. The results are moving and unexpected. The hinge upon which the novel swings – and shuts – is that in matters of the heart, you must be careful what you wish for.

Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.