Monday, June 23, 2008

Note: This was written in November 2007.

My Dog Tulip was first published in Great Britain, 1956, but the copyright notice on the New York Review of Books Classic edition is 1965--probably the year Ackerley wrote the appendix (more an afterword to my eye--I’m accustomed to appendices consisting mostly of bibliographies and notes), which was obviously written after the fact. Tulip was apparently a semi-legendary small-press book when it initially appeared, which makes sense: as the story of a man and his dog, it’s indulgent by nature. More specifically, as the story of a man and his attempts to breed his dog, the subject that takes up the bulk of the book, it’s very indulgent.

It’s also very elegant, which makes for good comic tension, as when, deadpan, the author combats his fellow urbanites for their reductive view of the canine species, allowing Tulip, his overprotective Alsatian, to shit on the sidewalk. He doesn’t simply describe this--he devotes a chapter to it, and three to various attempts to husband his animal. Ackerley’s detail often borderlines on graphic, but he’s too refined to be lurid; the results are a kind of highfalutin earthiness, told by a hapless narrator in love with his bitch.

Because that’s what Tulip is: an Alsatian bitch, pure of breed, though after at least a half-dozen attempts--I didn’t count--to mate her with her own, a tryst with a neighborhood mutt finally plants the seed. Ackerley uses the word the way it came into the world, where it’s not likely to return anytime soon. It’s a little jarring to read it in the middle of a book aimed at the well turned--not infrequently, either. There are almost as many “bitches” here as in Iceberg Slim’s Pimp. Not to get too Beavis and Butt-Head about it, but the way that term now jars Ackerley’s setting of it is probably more amusing than his tone or his tales.

The tales are pretty good, though Ackerley’s endless tales of running amok through London (and later Essex) attempting to hook the pooch up do get a little samey. Still, sameyness is the point: the draw is the angles the author spins his tales from. Tulip--in real life better known as Queenie--was adopted from one of Ackerley’s lovers (he was openly gay, unusual in ’50s London), and Ackerley makes preternatural judgments on her behalf (she should mate with another purebred; well, I guess it’s OK for her to stay on with my wayward cousin even though we’ll miss each other dearly--there’s a garden to play in) and guards her against the injustice of human expectations about the behavior of animals (one especially indignant moment comes toward someone who suggests Tulip put herself in the line of oncoming cars if she wants to relieve herself publicly). Tulip, meanwhile, is an aggressive protector of her master; we learn this when Ackerley does, as the sole veterinarian he trusts informs him, “She’s in love with you, that’s obvious.”

In a way, this is an ideal book with which to begin an off-canon classics series--a late career work by a cultishly adored writer, smart and tidy and formalist above all, as well as a brisk version of a genre (dog books) generally given over to slop. Actually, that’s simply a guess: I can’t think of any dog books I’ve read, not even Jack London. (I told you I wasn’t a lit person.) I’ll simply take my cues from the NYRB edition’s introduction by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, which reads the way an aunt grabbing your cheeks at a family reunion feels. Of course, since the book is apparently being made into an animated film, maybe soon it won’t be all that off-canon. Still, there are three other Ackerley titles in the NYRB series (My Father and Myself, We Think the World of You, and Hindoo Holiday), and something tells me I’ll like them more, simply because I’m not a dog man.