We Think the World of You by J.R. Ackerley slips by so cleverly that it’s almost easy to miss how perfectly it’s constructed. Here’s the line from the back jacket that grabbed me, and that accurately represents the book’s acid British humor:
“The wife gets to visit the jail. The mother gets to adopt one of the children. The stepfather gets to beat the dog. Is there nothing left for the middle-aged gay lover?”
J.R. Ackerley (1896–1967) was the literary editor of the BBC magazine The Listener, and is an intriguing personality in his own right. The introduction to this re-release by the NYRB imprint explains that:
“…Ackerley was, in a way, much favored by fortune. He was very good looking, had indulgent parents and devoted friends, among them his guru E.M. Forester, and was a highly regarded literary editor. It is true that he had a complicated and harassing love life, being incorrigibly promiscuous (though he did not see it that way himself). Every three weeks or so he would have found the love of his life.”
The book is the story of Frank, a middle-aged civil servant who is in love with Johnny, a much younger working-class man who is married and has an ever-increasing brood of children. Events are set off when Johnny is incarcerated for a petty crime and Frank is left to compete with the other people in Johnny’s support network for a role in Johnny’s life, which he’s not exactly entitled to but which he cannot help but demand. The conflict hilariously and obsessively begins to focus on Evie, Johnny’s dog. Here is how she’s described:
“She was certainly an extremely pretty dog, I had never seen a prettier, stone gray with a black tunic and her face most elegantly marked. Her nose and lips were sooty, as also were the rims of her bright brown eyes, above which tiny black eyebrow tufts were set like accents, and in the middle of her forehead was a dark vertical streak like a Hindu caste mark.”
Lovely sentences and a beautiful dog, whose passionate, loving and jealous nature finds a match in Frank’s own. The book is one of those genius assemblages that cuts both ways—Frank is both ridiculous and sympathetic. His passion and devotion to Johnny are sincere, but are also made equivalent to passion of someone (Evie) who eats your mail. He is rightfully maddened by Johnny’s family, and wrongfully makes these people’s lives more difficult during a difficult time. He openly harasses and demeans his lover’s wife (she doesn’t know Johnny is sleeping with Frank, or chooses not to), yet he’s also a gay man, in love, in a closeted society.
Here’s an example of the acidulous humor: Frank, the main character, is frank, but unwittingly so. He’s open and self-revealing not because he understands himself or wishes us to understand him, but because his obsessions and character flaws come through so clearly.
The introduction also tells us that Ackerley became dog-obsessed himself in his later years, and that We Think the World of You is one of his two books on the topic. Despite what must have been his partial sympathy for Frank (he wrote a book about him, and we see through Frank’s eyes), the author takes the story to a dark, satirical conclusion. The following eye-popping passage, which takes place between Johnny and Evie (the dog) near the end of the novel, must be one of the weirder moments in the NYRB library:
“Indeed, I saw it, for when she had done making love to him he would make love to her. He knew—it was what he was good at, the conferring of physical pleasure—exactly where and how to touch her, and as soon as his hand descended she would roll over on her side and open her legs, and his strong yet gentle fingers would move over her stomach, manipulating her nipples and her neat, pretty genital, shaped like the crown of a daffodil, in a way she enjoyed, while he whispered little affectionate obscenities into her ears.”
In case we have any doubt that Frank has crossed into the territory of pure satire, the brilliant last paragraph, as he discusses his life as the prisoner of Evie’s jealousy, sums it up:
Not that I am complaining, oh no; yet sometimes as we sit and my mind wanders back to the past, to my youthful ambitions and the freedom and independence I used to enjoy, I wonder what in the world has happened to me and how it all came about…But that leads me into deep waters, too deep for fathoming; it leads me into the darkness of my own mind.