review

MY DOG TULIP – J.R. ACKERLEY

My Dog TulipMy Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

this is as charming as any other book written about a man’s single-minded pursuit to get his dog laid.

this book was in my quarterly literary fiction box from pagehabit, as a companion-book to The Friend.

it was published in england in 1956 and the u.s. in 1965, in a distant past before lawmakers realized civilization would be nicer without dog poop on the streets, before bob barker was around to encourage people to spay and neuter their furfriends, and before the internet taught dogs how to have sex.

i thought this book was going to be a typical nonfiction memoir-y thing about a man and his dog and how enduring was their love. and it is that, but the focus is primarily upon tulip’s “romantic” interludes – trying to find her a mate, trying to get the pair to successfully couple once a suitable partner is located, all the times she went into heat and no partner was sought, and the one time in sixteen years she successfully had a litter of her own. i have learned many things from this book, mostly about canine vulvas, and the many fluids, scents, discharges, secretions, & etc associated with the mysterious process of canine procreation.

i have never owned a pet that wasn’t spayed or neutered, so i have never had to experience what happens during their heats. after reading this, i will never be tempted to own a pet that isn’t spayed or neutered. it’s just way too stressful, for man and beast alike. tulip is a particularly high-strung dog, and so devoted to and possessive of ackerley that it complicates their trips to the vet, his human relationships, and the process of getting her mated. if ackerley could have done it himself, he absolutely would have but alas, that is not how puppies are made.

nature is nature and full of copulation, evacuation, placental ingestion, genital inflammation. i’m not shocked by any of that, although i question the impulse to fixate on it and write about it at such length. my impression of j.r. ackerley before reading this was that he was a dapper little englishman*, not someone who would spend so much time examining the feces, urine, and various other secretions coming out of a dog. who would rest his hand on a dog’s inflamed vulva in sympathy and comfort or rub vaseline on it in order to facilitate sexual congress.

i’m grown enough and empathetic enough that i’m not all “ewwww” about the descriptions of tulip’s swollen vulva and ackerley’s concern for her when her heats go unfulfilled and he provides sympathetic platonic contact, hand resting on vulva or “button nipples.” but it does seem like a shitty thing to allow a dog to go through if you’re not going to at least try to let her scratch that itch. spaying a dog doesn’t ruin her, as ackerley claims it would, but putting an already high-strung and anxious dog like tulip through the cycle twice a year seems cruel. after a few failed attempts, he didn’t bother trying to find her another worthy suitor and just lets her go through the whole exhausting ordeal of unconsummated heat, with its side effects both physical and psychological. here is an overlong quote which i found upsetting because poor tulip! in describing the packs of dogs that would follow tulip and ackerley on their walks during her heat, and her confusion in the maelstrom of nature’s demands and ackerley’s untranslatable behavioral expectations of her:

And now what did one do, with a swarm of randy creatures dodging along behind with an eye to the main chance, of which they had the clearest view, snarling and squabbling among themselves for what Major Hancock calls the “primacy of approach,” and provoking Tulip to a continual retaliation which either entangled my legs in the lead or wrenched my arm out of its socket?

I usually ended by doing two things. I released her from the lead, which, since she might be said to live always on a spiritual one, was more an encumbrance than an advantage. Then I lost my temper. For it was at this moment that her intelligence failed her. I would turn upon our tormentors with threatening gestures and shouts of “Scram!”, but before the effect, if any, of this could be gauged, Tulip, always ready to please, would assist me as she thought by launching herself vehemently at her escort. This, of course, defeated my purpose. It was precisely what I did not want because it was precisely what they wanted. They did not take her onslaughts at all seriously and, one might say, could scarcely believe their good fortune at finding her in their midst. Yet, command and yell at her as I did, I could not make her see that all I required of her was that she should remain passively at my side. Poor Tulip! With her bright, anxious gaze fixed perpetually on my stern face striving to read my will, many a curse and cuff did she get for being so irrepressibly helpful! And how could she be expected to understand? Most of these dogs were her friends, with whom, a few days ago, she had been permitted, even encouraged, to hobnob; now apparently they were in disgrace, yet although I seemed angry with them and to desire their riddance, I was angry with her too for implementing my wishes.

The same thing happened, when, threats failing, I took to pelting the dauntless creatures with sticks and clods. Tulip, accustomed to having things thrown for her to retrieve, instantly flew off to retrieve them, and earned another, [sic] slap when she playfully returned with the stick in her mouth and sundry dogs clinging to her bottom. Whatever she did, in short, was wrong, and soon she herself was in such a state of hysterical confusion that she no longer knew what she did, but, with all the intelligence gone out of her eyes and succeeded by a flat, insensitive, mad look, would jump up at me to seize the missile before I threw it, and even when I had nothing to throw, tearing my clothes or my flesh with her teeth.

not cool, ackerley!

acknowledging the serious diseases and conditions that affect purebred dogs while still insisting that tulip be bred to another pedigreed german shepherd is another bewildering decision ackerley makes. although that decision is perhaps explained by the fact that he never planned on allowing the puppies that grew inside his beloved tulip to live for very long. oh, did i not mention that part? yeah, because while ackerley is very gallant about tulip being allowed to live a full life, preventing her from being spayed so she can ‘experience motherhood,’ what he really means by “motherhood” is “pregnancy.” because moments after tulip pushes out her pups, while they are still sticky and squirming with tiny closed eyes, ackerley is off in the bathroom getting ready to drown them. okay okay, that’s an exaggeration, he’s only intending to drown the bitch pups and find homes for the boys. he does not go through with this plan, and ends up finding homes for all of them (even though most of them don’t live long in these new homes), but the fact that this was his original plan and that he was close to following through on it is enough to piss me off.

i’m not new to the world, i know all about farm life and batches of puppies and kittens drowned for various reasons and i hate it but you know what i hate even more? someone who intentionally gets his dog pregnant, after so many failed attempts and frustrated desires and unsuitable partners, who, as soon as she does manage to get pregnant and give birth, goes straight for the bucket of water to drown them before she’s even gotten to spend a single night with them. seriously, ackerley? that’s what all that was for? that’s wasteful. and sick.

i mean, yay that he doesn’t kill them, but it’s still appalling. the only thing that will make me feel better is sharing the story of how tulip (finally) got knocked up, after ackerley gave up on finding her a noble alsatian as mate, throwing up his hands and letting “ladies choice” prevail, allowing her to hook up with the persistent dog next door, her pal – a scottish sheepdog-mutt named dusty; a “ragamuffin,” a “disreputable, dirty mongrel” with two different-colored eyes, “with whom it had always amused Tulip to play,” (and – yes – ackerley seems totally jelly of him), and dusty does successfully put his babies in her, but it is one of the funniest sexual mishaps i have ever read:

She at once went to greet him. Dusty was emboldened to come right in. There was a coquettish scamper. She stood for him. He was too small to manage. She obligingly squatted, and suddenly, without a sound, they collapsed on the grass in a heap. It was charming. They lay there together, their paws all mixed up, resting upon each other’s bodies. They were panting. But they looked wonderfully pretty and comfortable – until Tulip thought she would like to get up, and found she could not. She tried to rise. The weight of Dusty’s body, united with her own, dragged her back. She looked round in consternation. Then she began to struggle. I called to her soothingly to lie still, but she wanted to come over to me and could not, and her dismay turned to panic. With a convulsive movement she regained her feet and began to pull Dusty, who was upside down, along the lawn, trying from time to time to rid herself of her incubus by giving it a nip. The unfortunate Dusty, now on his back, now on his side, his little legs scrabbling wildly about in their efforts to find a foothold, at length managed, by a kind of somersault, to obtain it. This advantage, however, was not won without loss, for his exertion turned him completely round, so that, still attached to Tulip, he was now bottom to bottom with her and was hauled along in this even more uncomfortable and abject posture, his hindquarters off the ground, his head down and his tongue hanging out. Tulip gazed at me in horror and appeal. Heavens! I thought, this is love! These are the pleasures of sex! As distressed as they, I hastened over to them, persuaded Tulip to lie down again for poor Dusty’s sake, and sat beside them to caress and calm them. It was a full half-hour before detumescence occurred and Nature released Dusty, who instantly fled home through the gap in the fence and was seen no more. As for Tulip, her relief, her joy, her gratitude (she seemed to think it was I who had saved her), were spectacular. It was more as though she had been freed from some dire situation of peril than from the embraces of love.

overall, it’s a weird little book. it ends abruptly, and it’s hard to imagine why he wrote it in the first place. it doesn’t make him look great – with his opinions about women, working class folks, and the whole puppy-drowning thing, and it doesn’t make tulip look great, either – she’s devoted to ackerley, but she is very naughty and over-indulged and neurotic, and their relationship is not super-healthy, unless you like the whole “you and me against the world” thing and think it applies to human-dog relationships and not just to star-crossed teenagers in elizabethan drama. it definitely has its sweet moments, but if these two were people, someone would be arranging the chairs and putting out bowls of chips and dip for an intervention.

in closing:

* oh, man – i just realized that this is the SAME realization i had when i read Dandy in the Underworld: An Unauthorized Autobiography, so maybe this is exactly what preoccupied dapper englishmen do!

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