L. J. Davis - One of the strangest novels ever: a crazed parable in which the protagonist, Lowell Lake, and his marriage undergo a constantly regenerating process of mental and physical disintegration. Quite mad
L. J. Davis, A Meaningful Life, NYRB Classics, 2009.
read it at Google Books
L.J. Davis’s 1971 novel, A Meaningful Life, is a blistering black comedy about the American quest for redemption through real estate and a gritty picture of New York City in collapse. Just out of college, Lowell Lake, the Western-born hero of Davis’s novel, heads to New York, where he plans to make it big as a writer. Instead he finds a job as a technical editor, at which he toils away while passion leaks out of his marriage to a nice Jewish girl. Then Lowell discovers a beautiful crumbling mansion in a crime-ridden section of Brooklyn, and against all advice, not to mention his wife’s will, sinks his every penny into buying it. He quits his job, moves in, and spends day and night on demolition and construction. At last he has a mission: he will dig up the lost history of his house; he will restore it to its past grandeur. He will make good on everything that’s gone wrong with his life, and he will even murder to do it.
The story, delivered with terrific brio, proceeds as a phantasmagoria of urban decay and heightened obsession. It is also extremely funny if you can put politically correct scruples to the side — which should be easy enough as the true butt of the novel is Lowell himself.
—Katherine Powers, The Boston Globe
Stultified by his job (editing a plumbing magazine) and his mind—numbing marriage (’a cross between Long Day’s Journey into Night and Father Knows Best’), frustrated novelist Lowell Lake welcomes a new obsession: renovating a monstrously dilapidated mansion in a Brooklyn slum. What follows, in L.J. Davis’s deadpan 1971 novel A Meaningful Life, reissued by NYRB Classics, is pure chaos, as Lowell confronts a cast of urban squatters, in some of the most brilliant comic turns this side of Alice in Wonderland. A cathartic read for urban pioneers.
— O, The Oprah Magazine
Here’s a real rediscovery...This strange comic masterwork is compared to the work of Kingsley Amis in Jonathan Lethem’s new introduction. That’s almost right, but the feel is darker, and there’s a touch of Patricia Highsmith too; it’s all about gentrification, and, ultimately, madness.
— The Los Angeles Times
Davis is seen by some as a kind of Evelyn Waugh of the American urban crisis.
— The Washington Post
...[O]ne of the strangest novels I have ever read: a crazed parable in which the protagonist, Lowell Lake, and his marriage undergo a constantly regenerating process of mental and physical disintegration. Quite mad, it can be read poolside, roadside or mountainside: wherever you are, you’ll be Lake-side.
—Geoff Dyer, The Guardian
“I know what my problem is. I’m not having a meaningful life. There you have it in a nutshell.”
L.J. Davis’ 1971 novel, “A Meaningful Life,” re-published with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem, is a black humor romp into the bowels of life’s greatest disappointments: fruitless writing, loveless marriage, an empty job, and some unsuccessful real estate speculation. Even more, the novel dives into the moral ambiguity of gentrification, a theme Davis and Lethem have both addressed throughout their careers living and working in Brooklyn. Lethem, whose acclaimed novels “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Fortress of Solitude” also have Brooklyn as their backdrop, grew up down the street from Davis and had been a friend of his son. In a conversation recorded for Art Beat, Lethem told Davis, “Years later, your books helped me give a name to my own conflicts, not to resolve them necessarily, but at least to speak of them.” Both he and Jonathan Lethem still live in Brooklyn.
You can listen to their conversation, recorded for Art Beat, here:
A former Guggenheim Fellow, L.J. Davis authored four novels and two works of nonfiction, was a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, among other publications, and won the National Magazine Award for predicting the stock market crash of 1987. And while the themes of “A Meaningful Life” – the dissolution of a carefully constructed life, obsession with real estate – sound familiar, Davis’ literary take is funnier, and potentially darker, than what you might expect.
The novel follows a young Lowell Lake from college to the tribulations of early adulthood in search of meaning; a joyless marriage and an unsuccessful attempt at writing a novel in a tiny apartment in Manhattan ensue. His situation quickly devolves: Lowell drinks often and keeps to himself. His clothes begin disintegrate, as do his senses of time and his surroundings. He finds himself a “man who suddenly wonders if he’s been wearing his shoes on the wrong feet for thirty hours.”
He gets a quiet job at a plumbing magazine, having never fixed a pipe in his life. The monotony makes a slow-motion crawl to insanity that would make Kafka proud. “Any idiot could do this kind of work,” Lowell snarls to his coworkers as he teeters on the edge of a breaking point. Acting on a thin memory of an article he read, Lowell recalls, “Creative young people were buying houses in the Brooklyn slums, integrating all-Negro blocks, and coming firmly to grips with poverty and municipal corruption. It was the stuff of life.”
On impulse and against his wife’s will, Lowell purchases a decrepit rooming house in Fort Greene. The house, a former mansion turned macabre mess, was situated on a block consumed by “scandal and chicanery, bribery and extortion, swindles, boondoggles, low cunning, and naked greed…in colorful parade before [Lowell’s] eyes and he loved every minute of it.”
Lowell’s journey from Manhattan to Brooklyn is one from apathy to passion, and then beyond passion to the edge of what most of us would call madness. He sets out to demolish, room by room, the lives the past inhabitants left, but loses his mind in the midst. His devolution culminates in a deplorable act, committed in a rage of drink and darkness. In the end, he is left with the shell of an unfinished house and a blight on his blurred conscience: “Everything had gone wrong, and he had succeeded at nothing, and was never going to have any kind of life at all.” An ending that, Davis admits, is entirely necessary to capture the moral ambiguity of gentrification, and even further, Lethem adds, to capture the failure of a sort of Manifest Destiny.
The gentrification that Davis and protagonist Lowell Lake pioneered (when most thought they were crazy to try) is now commonplace in many of New York’s outer boroughs. In the introduction to the book, Lethem marvels at the fact that Davis raised two black daughters alongside his two biological sons, making his home “a kind of allegory of the neighborhood…partly in order that he might refuse to stand above or apart from it. After almost 30 years, re-published in an era that floats phrases like post-racial across cyberspace, Davis’ novel still illuminates the paradoxes, both personal and political, of the search for a meaningful life. - https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/conversation-jonathan-lethem-lj-davis-ponder-a-meaningful-life
So much to say about this book touching on the deadening effects of mindless employment, on marital dysfunction, middle-class preoccupations, dipsomania, and realty. Real estate, the unfailing conversation starter for those deeming themselves worthy of being called New Yorkers, trumps all of the subplots in L.J. Davis’s very dark comedy. Subtly Kafkaesque, this novel tells the story of Lowell Lake, an irritating dimwit with the introspection of a bedbug who wakes up one day to the realization that his life has no meaning. The solution: a fixer-upper in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. Once owned by Darius Collingwood, a shady colonel who took up residence there in 1884 before fleeing to South America and writing The Autobiography of a Scoundrel, the decrepit 22-room mansion has become a SRO whose occupants Lowell gives less consideration to than the plumbing.
What’s wrong with the following picture? “In the weeks since he’d first come to the neighborhood, he’d met a fag real-estate agent, two senile old people, a pair of stoned hippies, and a nut. (He’d also met, albeit briefly, a substantial number of Negros and Puerto Ricans and one goofy grocer from the Canary Islands, but they were not the people he was looking for, and they didn’t count.) Clearly such a collection couldn’t be a reasonable cross-section of this or any neighborhood.” The novel is as un-PC and cringe-inducing as they get, but what’s even more wrong with the picture is that, although the novel was published in 1971, it parallels the talk around current gentrification, if not in Fort Greene—it’s tapped out—perhaps Clinton Hill, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy? The list goes on …
L.J. Davis masterfully captures the cognitive dissonance of those incapable of acknowledging the consequences of their actions. Lowell is not precisely evil, he’s just self-absorbed, lost in life. Though he completes the renovation project, the joys of homeownership are forever barred to him. Somewhere down the line things go terribly wrong, but he’s such a nonentity no one even notices. Loser status intact, he’s still merely, if inaccurately, “the guy who moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant.”
- Mónica de la Torre
So woefully forgotten are L. J. Davis’s novels of Brooklyn that not even he has copies on hand in his apartment. Boxes of the unsold books, along with the rest of his collection 5,000 or so volumes by other authors, were relegated to storage two years ago, when Mr. Davis sold the Boerum Hill town house that had been his home since 1965 and moved into a postwar condominium around the corner.
There is, in fact, very little evidence of Mr. Davis’s life and career — four critically successful but obscure novels that came out between 1968 and 1974, and a handful of subsequent nonfiction books — visible in his spare one-bedroom apartment. A partial (but nearly complete) inventory: one small television with rabbit ears on top of a folding card table, three broken cane chairs and several stacks of books on the windowsill, among them spy thrillers, military histories and the 2008 Century Association membership directory.
But Mr. Davis’s 1971 novel “A Meaningful Life,” which he considers his most serious book, was reissued last month, after enjoying, if that’s the right word, 38 years with some level of cult-classic status. The story concerns a young husband who quits the doldrums of his respectable West Side existence and sets out for the new and fringy territory of Brooklyn to become a gentrifier.
“He’s going to give meaning to his life by refurbishing the house and the slum it’s in the middle of, and of course it just completely dominates his life,” Mr. Davis, 68, said of the book’s protagonist, Lowell Lake. When he wrote the novel, Mr. Davis and his family were doing more or less the same thing, having undertaken the project on a large and decayed brownstone on Dean Street near Hoyt.
“It was one of the most dangerous, poorest neighborhoods in New York,” Mr. Davis said. “We got robbed — not mugged, robbed — four or five times, which was not so bad, actually. And of course the neighborhood got much more desirable over time.” He said he sold the house, which he had purchased for $17,000, for $2 million.
As for “A Meaningful Life,” Mr. Davis said, “It came out and nothing happened.” Until now it has never even been issued in paperback.
But as it turns out, one admiring reader was Jonathan Lethem, a neighbor who had been the childhood best friend of one of Mr. Davis’s sons. Mr. Lethem grew up to become not only a highly regarded writer but also somebody known for the keen eclecticism of his taste, and — this is the most serendipitously relevant part — his standing as perhaps the most authentically Brooklyn novelist around, in the most authentically self-effacing sense of the borough. “I wear my local provenance on my sleeve — in fact, I’ve fabricated my whole garment out of the stuff,” he once wrote.
A couple of years ago Mr. Lethem praised “A Meaningful Life” in an essay about Brooklyn authors. This prompted Edwin Frank, the editor of the New York Review of Books Classics, to track down a copy on the Internet. He liked it so much he contacted Mr. Davis to inquire about reissuing it.
“Jonathan said it was funny and black, two things I like,” Mr. Frank said. “I thought it was funnier at the beginning and blacker at the end.”
It took Mr. Davis a few days to respond to Mr. Frank’s message. “I hadn’t read the book in almost 40 years,” Mr. Davis said. Eventually he replied with an e-mail message: “By all means, go ahead and reprint it. I was a very funny writer in those days, but I never seemed to find an audience. Maybe the second time will be the charm.”
If it is, Mr. Davis would join a small but elite subset of American writers whose works managed to get their due decades after publication thanks to a present-day writer’s call to arms. They include Dawn Powell, who was championed by Gore Vidal; Richard Yates, a cause of Stewart O’Nan and Richard Ford; Charles Portis, by way of Ron Rosenbaum; and Paula Fox, Mr. Davis’s Brooklyn contemporary whose “Desperate Characters” Jonathan Franzen stumbled upon at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, and campaigned to get back into print.
Like his protagonist, Mr. Davis grew up in Boise, Idaho, went to Stanford, and came to New York City on a lark, which had something to do with the absence of Victorian architecture and thunderstorms in San Francisco. He moved to Brooklyn a few years later, and he and his wife raised four children in the house.
“It cost $17,000 to buy the house and $40,000 to fix a bulge in the ceiling,” Mr. Davis said. “Seriously. The plasterer was a perfectionist. He ended up putting in a new ceiling and redoing the stairs.” Mr. Davis’s real-life brownstone renovation went on for 20 years. “It had seven marble fireplaces that had been painted pink,” he said. “I went through a thousand gallons of paint remover, hundreds of butane tanks to strip the wood and the wainscoting.”
Mr. Davis is a voluble fellow whose personal anecdotes often begin with introductions like “One of the strange things about being a genius is. ...” He has multidirectional hair and a long Boston nose, and is slim enough that his appearance suggests malnourishment. He chain-smokes Kools, though when deep into telling a story from his past, he tends to clasp his hands behind his head and to lie on the chaise longue in his apartment to stare at the ceiling like an analysand.
His early promise did not go unrecognized. In 1975 he won a Guggenheim to write fiction, though he didn’t produce another novel. Instead he turned his attention to magazine journalism, most notably in Harper’s, where he was a colleague of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. He often wrote about business and finance, including a memorable article that deconstructed the savings and loan failure of the 1980s. But the last decade or two, which involved a divorce and a lot of drinking, Mr. Davis said, were less productive.
Although he considers himself a recluse, Mr. Davis still loves to walk through Boerum Hill and see which houses and storefronts are turning over.
“There are lots of restaurants now — good restaurants too,” he said. “In fact here on Atlantic Avenue there’s the only restaurant I’ve ever been to that knows how to do Buffalo chicken wings the right way. No. 1, you use Jack’s Louisiana hot sauce. No. 2, you make your own mayonnaise for the blue cheese sauce, and the blue cheese sauce is just for the celery, not the chicken. I got the recipe from Craig Claiborne.”
The republication of “A Meaningful Life” has spurred Mr. Davis forward on the four-part history of the Industrial Revolution that he began nearly a decade ago. (The first volume, “Fleet Fire,” came out in 2003.) He is at work on the third volume, where he is up to the life and times of Benjamin Thompson, an American physicist better known as the Bavarian Count von Rumford.
“He was the inventor of baked Alaska, the modern theory of heat and the modern kitchen range,” Mr. Davis said. “All of it, not to mention the modern welfare system. He was a very unusual character. He was truly a man of his times.” - ERIC KONIGSBERG
What a pleasure it is to write about a book that I loved without complication. For those academics even now preparing studies on whether or not the new social media can actually sell books, chalk one up for me. Already an admirer of NYRB Classics, I bought this book when they mentioned it on Twitter or Facebook or, you know, one of those sites. We owe a debt of gratitude to novelist Jonathan Lethem, who lobbied for its reissue, and to NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank, who listened.
A Meaningful Life was first – and last – published in 1971, and until now had not even reached a paperback edition. Says Davis in this fascinating piece about the background to the book and its rediscovery, “It came out and nothing happened.” (Hugo Wilcken, take heart.) There really is no excuse for this, as it’s the most miserably funny book I’ve read all year.
The meaningful life of the title is sought by Lowell Lake, who one day shortly after his 30th birthday, wakes up with “the sudden realization that his job was not temporary.”
He’d found his level, and here he was, on it. He was the managing editor of a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly, a job he did adequately if not with much snap. It was, he realized with a dull kind of shock, just the sort of job for a man like him. Someday he might rise to the editorship, either of the plumbing trade monthly or of something exactly like it. Big deal. But it was all he was good for, and he was stuck with it.Here we are then, in the territory previously occupied by any number of dissatisfied suburban workers: Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road; Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt; Bob Slocum in Something Happened; Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The ease with which I can recall examples indicates how much I’ve enjoyed these books; but do we need another? Did we in 1971?
Well, it didn’t hurt. Davis executes his tale with much more open wit than the others: Something Happened is a very funny novel but is “black humour … with the humour removed”, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, as the author “cripples his own jokes intentionally.” A Meaningful Life is more straightforward, more seductive than that, and in that sense all the more impressive for allowing no light at the end of the tunnel for its ‘hero’. It is different from Something Happened in that there, the narrator makes his own miserable comedy; here, the jokes are all on Lowell Lake. But like Heller’s book – like the best comic writing – it comes unsweetened, tempered by an undertow – an overflow – of despair.
Lowell, an inadequate man, is surrounded by inadequates, such as his boss, Crawford, the editor of the plumbing trade monthly, who fears an office coup, “that someday they would contrive to get him no matter what he did to stop them.” Or his father-in-law, Leo, whose relentlessly droning smalltalk drives Lowell to distraction (“Lowell was afraid to open his mouth for fear of screaming in the little man’s face”). It even, in a nicely astute moment, begins to infect Lowell’s perception of his wife:
“Great”, said Lowell, noticing with a sinking feeling that her last sentence had been spoken with her father’s inflection and ended with her father’s phrase. He’d never noticed a thing like that in her voice before. He began to listen for it, and shortly his fears were confirmed. It was there all right, coming and going like the odor of burning tires in a rose garden.This is how he got here. Lowell, frustrated in his job, silently bored by his marriage, decided to do a Frank Wheeler and move to a new life: not to Europe but to New York from his western home. Unlike Frank Wheeler, he never got around to putting it off:
There was no getting out of it. Afloat on a tide of events and furiously propelled by his wife, he gave notice at the library, renouncing his scholarship at the Berkeley, and told everyone in sight that he’d decided to go to New York, desperately hoping that someone would give him some smart-sounding and compelling reason for doing no such blame-fool thing, but no one did. On the contrary, the more people he told about it, the more it seemed like he was actually going to go.As Lowell brings himself with him, the new life feels very much like the old life: and not a very meaningful one at that. What he does to try to overturn this is the central plot of the book: he buys a Brooklyn brownstone “of such surpassing opulent hideousness that Lowell could scarcely believe that someone was actually offering to sell it to him. It was just the kind of place he’d always really wanted with a powerful subconscious craving that defied analysis.” His project to refurbish the building is undertaken on the very good grounds that busy fingers are happy fingers; but it never occurs to Lowell that the question “How can I have a meaningful life?” is one which, once asked, cannot be satisfactorily answered.
The chapter which shows Lowell meeting the existing tenants of the building, who will need to be evicted, is the weakest section of the book. Davis is by far at his best when trapping Lowell in the crucibles of family and work. There are some brilliant set pieces, masterclasses in comic writing, including one where Lowell tries to bribe a city man during the planning process, and another where he is accidentally anti-semitic during an argument with his mother-in-law. Davis excels in taking the comedy of discomfort and stretching it further than it should go.
The prose in A Meaningful Life is fast on its feet and often surprising. You can read the first chapter here; if you like it, this is a book for you. In a book where the central character’s “concrete desires” seem to him to be “almost facts”, it’s a relief when hopes and expectations for a book are more than fulfilled in reality. - John Self
In L. J. Davis’s excellent A Meaningful Life—published a year after Desperate Characters and recently reissued by NYRB Classics—Lowell Lake, married managing editor of “a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly,” impulsively purchases a brownstone in Fort Greene. Once home to an industrial baron, it is now a half-decayed rooming house. The novel is dense with details of Lowell’s labor: by its final third, neither he nor the narrative leaves the house. In Walking Small (1974), Davis again focuses on the physical work that is and makes possible gentrification: an advertising executive sets about renovating the brownstone he has purchased, despite one tenant’s refusal to move out.
As fixated as they are on the appearance of their houses, characters in early gentrification novels recognize that there are consequences to their labor. The newcomers are not immune to guilt. Whether or not they believe what they are doing is wrong, they know others despise them for it, and with this knowledge comes fear of retribution. When Sophie Brentwood tries to feed a stray cat that appears on her stoop, the cat bites her. The cat is but a pretext for dread: Sophie knows she will be made to suffer for her presence in the neighborhood. While she waits for the results of her rabies test, people shit on the sidewalk, and at a party in Brooklyn Heights, someone throws a rock through the window. A Meaningful Lifeends with Lowell waking to find an intruder in his home. He smashes the man’s skull with a crowbar. The implication is clear: the gentrifier, frightened in his castle, imagines the neighborhood’s avenging spirit to be always at his door. If gentrification is violence, its agent fears payback in kind.
What the gentrifier pursues is beauty: he demolishes layers of linoleum and rotten wood and rickety pipes in order to carve out something new. Lowell wants “his house to be like claret and Dutch chocolate.” Struggling with his renovations, he tries to “think about the matter creatively” and “intelligently.” Gentrifiers reframe destruction as creation: “You take raw material and you transform it,” says a friend in Desperate Characters. “That is civilization.” The goal of gentrification—like the composition of fiction—is to create a work of art. By emphasizing the pursuit of aesthetic perfection, the early gentrification novel employs renovation as a metaphor for the novel, a means for authors to explore the pleasures and perils of constructing a private world.
For the first generation of Brooklyn gentrification novelists, the genre appeared to offer a compromise: they could pursue beauty, and extol its pursuit, while simultaneously remaining sensitive to anxieties about race and class. The books, however, rarely fulfill this promise. In A Meaningful Life, Lowell cannot remember whether the man he killed was black or white. This outrageously improbable lapse thwarts any reading of the novel as a straightforward racial allegory, a portrait of gentrification as thoughtless white-on-black violence. Although such an allegory would be inadequate to describe gentrification—especially in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, where A Meaningful Life takes place, and where a relatively high percentage of black home ownership means rising housing prices do not always translate to the displacement of long-term residents—Lowell’s frayed memory allows Davis to deny that race is a factor in the destruction of a neighborhood. Read together with Walking Small, in which the obdurate tenant is an affable white hippie,A Meaningful Life imagines a world where race is irrelevant to the cause and course of gentrification.
When A Meaningful Life was reissued earlier this year, the novelist Jonathan Lethem interviewed Davis for PBS. Both men have lived in Brooklyn since the 1960s. Lethem was born in 1964; a year later, Davis moved to Boerum Hill (and paid a record price for his brownstone: $17,500). In the interview, Lethem admits that when he first read Walking Small, he thought Davis’s tenant was pure fiction, a “charming image” of the last, hopeless holdouts entrenched against gentrification. Then, Lethem says, he saw a similar scene play out when the last row house on a nearby block was renovated in the 1980s. The unyielding tenant was not white but Dominican. - Elizabeth Gumport
A novel about a failed writer who wakes up one day and realizes his life has no meaning, so he goes in search of some. 1971.
This is not my typical read. It’s described as a “black comedy,” which is a phrase that usually makes me put a book down, not pick it up. I like comedy, but black? Exactly how black are we talking here? It does get dark toward the end, but for me the majority of this novel was more “grey” comedy. Some parts of it, especially in the first half, are simply laugh-out-loud funny. See, sounding better, isn’t it?
Another reason I wouldn’t classify this as “my type of book” is that it’s a very male book. It’s written by a man and focuses entirely on a man. (I’ve read that the book is autobiographical.) One could even argue that the main character’s wife (who’s almost always referred to as “his wife”) doesn’t have much voice at all. She’s there but not there. Ah yes, but this is the point! Nobody in the book is entirely “there.”
The story is about Lowell Lake, a man from Idaho who attends Stanford, where he meets his future wife. They get married young, and even before graduation they decide, quite haphazardly, to move to New York City. Once there, living together in a tiny apartment, Lowell is given the chance to write a novel, something he’s half-heartedly always imagined himself doing. (Hint: everything with Lowell is half-hearted.) So he starts writing.
The problem, he quickly sees, is that nothing’s ever happened to him. He has no inspiration. He’s had a pleasant life with no major hiccups. His parents run a motel in Idaho that, unbeknownst to them but perfectly clear to Lowell, is a sort of “whorehouse,” where politicians and the like come to conduct sordid little affairs. Through Lowell’s flashbacks, we meet his parents once, and we see that they’re perfectly pleasant, straightforward people.
But it’s this pleasant nature that has been Lowell’s downfall as a writer. As a man, it also makes him ill-equipped to handle the arguments he and his New York Jewish wife have on an increasingly regular basis:
Nobody in his family ever argued, at least that he knew about. They always agreed about everything, but on the other hand, they didn’t do much. Maybe that was why.
I love this style of oblique comedy. Lowell has a sort of awkward lameness about him that makes the reader increasingly desperate for him to take a stand on something and stick to it. Well, his novel-writing probably won’t be it…
The act of writing brought him neither transport nor release; it was like slogging through acres of deep mud and had the same effect when you read it. It read like mud. Totally by accident he had contrived to fashion a style that was both limp and dense at the same time, writing page upon page of flaccid, impenetrable description, pierced here and there by sudden, rather startling interludes of fustian and vainglory that neither adorned, advanced, nor illuminated the plot, although they did give the reader a keen insight on the kinds of movies Lowell had seen as a child.
Lowell goes through a sort of breakdown over the book: reversing his sleep schedule, drinking, dramatically losing weight, and eventually suffering a mental breakdown. At one point his shoes feel funny and he wonders if they’re on the wrong feet. This really alarms him, because this would mean he’s had them on the wrong feet for thirty hours. Luckily, whew! His shoes are fine.
But it’s clear that a change is needed. So his wife says, “It’s about time, thank God,” and Lowell goes out and lands a job. It’s editing a plumbing magazine. His boss is paranoid about losing his own job to an up-and-coming youngster, so he prefers to hire people who have no professional motivation whatsoever. Lowell fits in perfectly.
This section of the narrative is all told via flashback. The “present day” of the novel, where the action really starts, is when Lowell wakes up on his 30th birthday and realizes something is wrong. At his usual pace—an endearing mixture of desperation and bewilderment—he figures out the problem. His life has no meaning. Everything that he supposed would be only temporary has been going on for ten years. Yes, he realizes, it might be about time to make a change.
Lowell doesn’t do things quickly. His main life decisions are, in fact, the products of arguments with his wife. These arguments are frequent, quiet, and can go on for days, even weeks.
He wondered what would happen if he were to rage and stamp about the room in his overcoat like the husband of popular fiction. He decided he probably wasn’t capable of it. He was a nice guy. That was the sort of thing you said about somebody you had nothing against and nothing in common with; you called him a nice guy. That was what Lowell was, even to himself. A nice, considerate guy.
As a result of one of these quiet arguments, Lowell and his wife end up looking at real estate in a really, really rundown part of Brooklyn. Lowell falls in love with this huge hundred year old house that’s currently inhabited by about twenty poor families of various ethnic backgrounds. The place is beyond thrashed. There’s even a place in the basement where raw sewage has created a small, putrid pool.
What really attracts Lowell to the house is not the social problems of the area (which are impressive), nor is it a desire to make a place like this his home. What he really latches onto is the history of the house itself. He reads everything he can about the business tycoon who built the house. He becomes a bore to everyone around him, as all he can talk about is the house and its history. He’s burned through all his savings, and his wife may or may not leave him. Still, for Lowell, the restoration of this grand old house is the key to restoring some kind of purpose to his life.
None of the characters in this novel are spoken of very nicely. Even Lowell, the clear protagonist, has his faults painted very liberally throughout. Still, I would not by any means call this book a downer. It really is funny, but in a self-effacing sort of way. In many ways (characterization and plot-wise), it reminded me of Wish Her Safe at Home. Both books are about likable but slightly unstable people who find purpose in an old house and its history.
It also reminded me of other books I’ve read in which the protagonist fixes up an old house. I happen to live in a house that, when we moved in, was called a “fixer upper,” so I’ve somewhat been through the process myself. The main difference is that in A Meaningful Life, the house is so disgustingly far gone, I was both appalled and enticed by all the work that needed to be done.
This book is not for the sensitive. There’s a bit of language, a bit of racism, and a small episode of violence, but none of it is gratuitous. Usually, it comes across as quite funny. Also, the social and housing situation in Brooklyn back in the ’70s is pretty amazing to read about. For about $15,000, Lowell buys a rundown mansion in a collapsed Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s mind-blowing to imagine what that property would be worth today! -
If the Masters of the Obvious over at stuffwhitepeoplelike.com were actually on their game, they’d put “hand-wringing gentrification tales” way up on their list. A rapt crowd, 99.9% Caucasian, packed into Park Slope’s Community Bookstore for L.J. Davis’s March 31 reading from A Meaningful Life, his scathing 1971 satire about a reverse-pioneer from Idaho who tries to redeem his banal existence through the renovation of an old “slummed-up” Brooklyn town house.
Introducing Davis was Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the preface for the novel’s early March re-release by New York Review of Books Classics. A Meaningful Life reads like the harsher, blunter prequel to Lethem’s own gentrification saga, the more nuanced though still pessimistic Fortress of Solitude (2003). Davis (like his protagonist Lowell Lake) is part of Lethem’s parents’ generation, the first wave of hopeful bohemian transplants to rough-edged areas like Clinton Hill (where A Meaningful Life is set) and Boerum Hill, where Davis has long lived. The latter is also where Lethem grew up, idolizing his neighbor for being the lone Brooklynite to write the truth about outer-borough race and class relations.
Lethem talked about how he would “hang onto” the coattails of the then-critic for the New York Times Review of Books, and try to bum advance copies of novels he wanted to read. “Not so fast!” curmudgeonly Davis used to say, but then he’d make young Lethem Eggs Benedict on mornings when the aspiring writer slept over, after late nights browsing his host’s extensive library. Finishing up his intro, Lethem claimed—with characteristic descriptive wit—that the dictionary entry for “mordant” should include a picture of Davis’s books, “or just Davis himself.” And truly, a better adjective for the elder novelist would be tough to find.
Davis, after warning the African-American–free audience about his book’s use of the word Negro, launched with gusto into its core act: Lake’s phantasmagoric tour of his soon-to-be-acquired property. It’s still functioning as a rooming house occupied by motley boarders when he goes to see it, guided by a Mephistopheles-like real estate agent who has “no smell.” What ensues is a lengthy, almost fetishistic recounting of the building’s bizarre decrepitude: the “walls…painted a dingy lavender with a shiny substance that appeared to be compounded equally of mucus and glue…then thickly sprayed with a mixture of soot and old cobwebs”; a “pink ceiling centered on a heroic central medallion of what appeared to be lettuce leaves in a nest of worms”; “tables made of some kind of synthetic material that was veined and painted to resemble wood,” and so forth. Through sheer accumulating weight, the endless descriptions win you over to Davis’s perspective, which seems to be that restoring a 19th-century mansion gone to seed is no walk in the park.
The evening concluded with a Q&A session, in which someone obligatorily queried Lethem as to whether Brooklyn’s edgy, novel-worthy days are long gone. He responded by warning against the assumption that gentrification has been triumphant. He told a story about a New York Times reporter who laughed at him as they toured Boerum Hill’s Smith Street, not believing that Lethem was ever afraid to walk down it. Lethem brought the reporter one block over, to Hoyt Street, and showed her what was clearly a “very functioning crack-house.”
The NYRB re-issue of L J Davis's A Meaningful Life is one of those great but scary encounters that unnerve you when you realize that you might have missed them. Come to think of it, I did miss L J Davis's A Meaningful Life when it came out, in 1971. Everybody did, it seems. Back then, a handful of important critics sentenced books to life or death, and even a couple of rave reviews might well leave stacks of books unsold. The Internet and its battalions of industrious readers have vastly increased the power of word-of-mouth. Although I haven't made a study of the matter, it seems to me that the number of books that are addressed on two or more of the reading blogs that I follow constitutes a small percentage of the whole; and, to the best of my recollection, only one such blog mentioned A Meaningful Life, and that was John Self's very thoughtful Asylum. I was instantly sold by the excerpt that Mr Self included at the start of his entry. A day or so later, I bought a copy at a neighborhood bookshop. I read the book, with a strange dark glee, in two sittings.
If I learned at Asylum that A Meaningful Life was probably a book that I'd like, I still didn't know quite what to expect. This uncertainty followed me through the entire novel. I never had an idea of how the story would turn out. Nor did I know what kind of story Mr Davis was out to tell. I could see from the notes on the back cover that the hero, Lowell Lake, eventually buys a dilapidated house in Brooklyn (at at time when all houses in Brooklyn were dilapidated, except for the ones in Brooklyn Heights) even though he lacks the skills of an amateur contractor (much less a professional one). Would this plot point take the book down the very familiar road exemplified by Please Don't Eat the Daisies and The Money Pit? In the event, no — not at all. Mr Davis is not terribly interested in the kind of homeowners' woes that elicit Schadenfreude-laced moans of sympathy at dinner parties. Lowell's supporting beams do not collapse, and he scrapes through the book without money troubles. This is not to say, however, that the project of restoring an old house in an unwelcoming neighborhood does not eventually drive Lowell crazy.
The trick of A Meaningful Life that the author has grounded the novel's point of view in a character who is not entirely awake, and the marvel of it is that Mr Davis never reduces Lowell's somnolence to a summary description. We are simply left without an alternative explanation for the states of consciousness that now and then flash through Lowell's brain — startling, to be sure, but no more intelligible, really, than sheets of summer lightning. Lowell seems to have the sense to come in out of the rain, but not to know, in any meaningful way, where rain comes from. Since he has no control over the rain, he doesn't think about it. This agnosticism, however, is far more extensive in Lowell than it is in most people smart enough to get through Stanford. But we're not to think that Lowell is any intellectual.
Lowell sipped ice water and brooded about his life. His parents owned a motel on Highway 30, just outside of Boise, Idaho. They were absentminded, pale, thin people who seemed completely unaware that they were running a love nest for downtown merchants, students from the junior college, and state politicians, among whom they were treasured for their permissiveness, probity, and discretion. (Actually, it was mostly just absentmindedness.) Lowell had a pleasant, undemanding childhood, free from influences either stimulating or depressing. He did well in school, largely because he had an excellent memory and an undemanding personality. It was some years before he realized that his parents ran a kind of self-service whorehouse, and even then it didn't bother him much. Nobody else seemed to think anything of it; a couple of the regular girls had been his mother's coffee friends for as long as he could remember, and it neither impressed not upset him to think that some of the most respected and powerful men in the state took off their pants in rooms he cleaned every morning. He graduated fifth in his high-school class, behind three home-economics majors and a strange-looking veterinarian's son who had bad skin and never talked to anybody, and who committed suicide the following September, the day after Labor Day.
That line about the self-service whorehouse exemplifies the deadpan humor with which the author kits out his undemanding hero, who might have had as absentminded a life as his parents' if only he had returned to Boise, or at least stayed on the West Coast. But Lowell's fortune — good or bad, we can't be sure — ties him up with a girl from Flatbush. This is not a problem while they're still at Stanford, because Lowell simply doesn't believe in Flatbush. When Betty's parents show up for the post-graduate wedding, however, Lowell is so freaked out by the culture clash that he drives into the desert, resolving to live off the land for the rest of his life. Of course he turns around — and by some extra-terrestrial coincidence is followed all the way back to Palo Alto by his parents, who are also driving to the wedding. Once his father gets a look at Betty's mother, he understands why Lowell was out on a desert highway, and encourages him to have another try, but despite these dark omens, Lowell marries Betty, and gradually goes to sleep on his feet for nine years. Then:
One morning not long after his thirtieth birthday, Lowell woke up with the sudden realization that his job was not temporary. It was as though a fiery angel had visited him in his sleep with a message of doom, and he leaped from bed in a state bordering on panic, staring wildly about him. His job wasn't temporary and things weren't going to get any better — not that they were going to get any worse, barring some unforeseen catastrophe like atomic warfare or mental illness, but they weren't going to get any better. That was the whole point. He'd found his level, and here he was, on it. He was the managing editor of a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly, a job he did adequately if not with much snap. It was, he realized with a dull kind of shock, just the sort of job for a man like him. Someday he might rise to the editorship, either of the plumbing-trade monthly or of something exactly like it. But it was all he was good for, and he was stuck with it.
This is the book's second paragraph, and it introduces an unsteady narrative that wavers between the panicked present and the stages by which it was reached. No attempt, however, is made to link causes with effects. Life has simply happened to Lowell, the way rain happens on a summer afternoon. His lone attempt to shape it (aside from the precipitate decision to settle in New York) has not gone well at all.
At the end of four months he'd finished half a novel, vaguely concerning the foundation and early settlement of Boise, Idaho. The act of writing brought him neither transport nor release; it was like slogging through acres of deep mud and had the same effect when you read it. It read like mud. Totally by accident he had contrived to fashion a style that was both limp and dense at the same time, writing page upon page of flaccid, impenetrable description, pierced here and there by sudden, rather startling interludes of fustian and vainglory that neither adorned, advanced, nor illuminated the plot, although they did give the reader a keen insight into the kind of movies Lowell had seen as a child. Characters as insubstantial and suffocating as smoke rode huge, oddly misshapen steeds over landscapes the color of lead, occasionally bursting into song or shooting one another down for reasons best known to themselves. The only reason Lowell figured he was halfway through was that the number of pages he'd accumulated amounted to half the length of an average novel; there was certainly no other way to tell from the plot, which had mostly to do with property rights and Indian raids, complicated by the free-silver question. Nine years later Lowell was astounded that he'd ever written such a thing, much less with a straight face and purity of purpose, but at the time he drove himself onward with the fixated desperation of a man trying to dig his way out of a grave. It had ceased to matter — if, in fact, it had ever mattered to begin with — whether the novel was good or bad, marketable or a hopeless bomb; he was totally focused on the act of writing it, and there existed the possibility, given optimum conditions, that he might have gone on writing it forever, or until his wife divorced him.
Funny as this all-too credible, exuberantly contemptuous description of a hopeless fiction project is, it also captures the meaninglessness of Lowell's actual life, as the managing editor of a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly and the husband of a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who once a month goes "to see her mother in Flatbush like some kind of installment-plan Eurydice." That Lowell has had a breakdown at last is no surprise. His crisis finds its first outlet in a bizarre getup involving gaiters. ("Smart and hip, however, was not exactly the way he felt as he surveyed the figure in the mirror...") That it should finds its resolution in the purchase of a vast derelict mansion somewhere in the vicinity of the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn comes as no surprise to readers of the précis of Lowell's novel. Having drifted through life, Lowell seems to realize (although this is never spelled out) that the only way forward is to put himself in uncomfortable situations.
With the fourth chapter, the novel settles down to straightforward chronology, which in an ordinary novel would enumerate the vicissitudes of renovating an old house, climaxing in either a jolly open house or a raging inferno. But this is not a book about home repair. It is a book about Lowell Lake, urban pioneer.
Lowell took none of this lying down. Lying down was what he'd been doing when things were going relatively well, but now that the struggle was hopeless he stood up and began to fight like hell. He could do nothing about Mr Grossman and his schemes, any more than he could get his wife back or quiet down the drunks, but he could get back to work on his house, and that is exactly what he did. With the distracted, slightly crazed intensity of a man trying to remember the periodic table in the middle of a bombing raid, he cleaned up his backyard in nothing flat. Then he swept all the rooms and washed all the windows and shoveled all the dried sewage out of the basement and put it in plastic bags. Meanwhile, a dozen seemingly adultless children, looking and dressing exactly like old-fashioned Hollywood pickaninnies, moved into a newly vacated house across the street and began playing frantically in the traffic and pulling the bark off trees. Lowell celebrated their arrival by opening the yellow pages and purposefully summoning contractors to hear his plans and give him estimates. Actually, it was principally the contractors' recording devices and answering services that he purposefully spoke his summonses to, but they were better than nothing. He was on the move at last.
And the climax, as befits a book about Lowell Lake, is less remarkable than the ensuing anticlimax. The climax is startling, to say the least, and don't try to guess it because you won't in a million years. What happens afterward, though, is, if I may mix tonalities, black comedy bathed in the clearest sunlight. The only dated thing about A Meaningful Life is the author's stylish determination to deny you the satisfaction of knowing whether the book has a happy ending or a sad ending. And look where that got him in 1971!
The New York City on view in A Meaningful Life is the site of a way of life that is coming to an end. Effectively, it has already come to an end.
The real-estate office, when they finally doubled back to it, proved to be housed in a building that was in the process of being either torn down or repaired. Half the cornice was missing, all the upper windows were broken out, and although ladders and brickwork were visible in some of the rooms, others appeared to be filled with bags of garbage and broken television sets. There were, in fact, several burst bags of garbage stacked up in the lee of the stoop, along with the remains of a pair of tubular kitchen chairs and a V-8 engine block. The double front doors were off their hinges, the ceiling was coming down, the walls were painted a dingy lavender with a shiny substance that appeared to be compounded equally of mucus and glue, and there was a dirty loaf of bread lying on the floor. The place was such a complicated mixture of the decrepit and the sinister that Lowell couldn't decide what was more likely to happen to him if he entered it: falling through a weak place in the floor or being knifed from ambush. A kind of dark vapor seemed to hang over it (the adjoining building had tin over its windows and looked comparatively tidy), and as Lowell turned to his wife, he heard, from somewhere within, the sound of hammering followed by a noise like sand and pebbles being poured down a drainpipe. It was impossible to tell what part of the house it came from or what it was all about.
Perhaps an even stronger implication of the dying world is made in an early, small scene set at McSorley's Ale House: the author feels no need to point out that the students "making a lot of noise and falling down in the next room" included no women among their number. The flowering of McSorley's was still to come. This world has run out of gas. In 1971, there were doubtless plenty of signs of the coming incarnation of the "Big Apple," but Mr Davis is sufficiently clear-headed and disciplined to excise them from his purview. It is entirely possible that Lowell Lake will find meaning in the world to come. But the important thing is that Mr Davis has made it clear that he would never find meaning in the world that was. - Pourover Press