Here is Davis’ introduction to his central character:
Lowell Lake was a tall man, rather thin, with thin sandy hair and a distant, preoccupied though amiable disposition, as though the world did not reach him as it reaches other men and all the voices around him were pleasant but very faint. His attention was liable to wander off at any time and he was always asking people to repeat things. He gave the impression that people bored him, although not in a bad way: actually, they seemed to lull him. He was frequently discovered half-asleep at his desk, gazing vacantly out the nearest window.
We meet Lowell not long after his thirtieth birthday. He is in New York, the managing editor of “a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly”, a job that he has held for nine years and seems destined to hold for life, perhaps with a promotion to editor when the incumbent expires. While “managing editor” might sound impressive, it is anything but — the editor is terrified that someone competent will replace him and promptly dispatches any staffer who shows competence; Lowell’s non-threatening passiveness is his greatest on-the-job asset.
Davis explores Lowell’s history. Idaho-born and raised, his parents ran a “hotel” that was pretty much a brothel, a convenient site for local worthies to conduct their assignations. Lowell is good enough at school that he is accepted at Stanford University, but without a scholarship. He writes a letter to one of the worthies, a judge, wondering whether there are any state aid programs for which he might qualify; the worthy, convinced he is being blackmailed (a thought that never crossed Lowell’s mind), promptly comes up with the cash and Lowell is off to one of the West’s better universities.
He met his future wife at the beginning of his sophomore year and immediately nicknamed her Tex, for reasons that were obscure even to himself, but the joke, whatever it was, soon wore off and eventually he came to call her by no name at all, or at least none he could use in public. When he wanted to attract her attention in a crowded room he usually called her “dear”, which admittedly was a pretty lame expedient and one that always embarrassed him. Her real name was Betty and she came from Flatbush.
Lowell and Betty eventually fall into a decision to get married, although that brings its own problems. The in-laws are not impressed with Lowell or the wedding plans (“I’m not sure I like this” is the mother-in-law’s response to everything from the chapel to the arrangements to the prospect itself; the father-in-law is a garment-trade cutter with no opinions about anything). In one of his few conscious decisions in the book, Lowell decides to run from the marriage and the night before the wedding takes off for Idaho — he gets just past Sacramento before deciding this too is wrong, turns around to return and discovers he is being trailed by his own parents on the way back to Stanford.
A decisive moment of the book comes when Lowell “decides” that rather than taking up a grad fellowship at Berkeley (it is too threatening), he and Betty will head instead to New York where he will write a novel. There is a wonderful moment on the way when they come to the Mississippi;
“Do you realize that I’m the first member of my family to cross this thing in a hundred years?” said Lowell as they bridged the Mississippi at Saint Louis. His emotions were strange and sinking, but not precise enough to put a name to.
“Big deal,” said his wife.
They came to New York at night, hurtling through a hellish New Jersey landscape the likes of which Lowell had never dreamed existed, a chaos of roadways and exits, none of which made any sense, surrounded by smoke and flashes and dark hulking masses and pillars of fire a thousand feet high, enveloped in a stench like dog’s breath and dead goldfish.
(Aside: Those who are fans of the Sopranos series have reason to wonder if creator David Chase — or at least the guy who did the titles — read this book. This particular section is a precursor of the whole Sopranos intro.)
It is night time, Lowell and Betty are confused and they actually overshoot New York and wake up the next morning in Brooklyn. The bulk of the novel explores their experiences there. Lowell, as is to be expected, is hopeless at writing a novel which is how he ends up at the plumbing-trade weekly. Shortly after the opening scene quoted above, he decides to make another life-change. He and Betty buy a decrepit Brooklyn brownstone (a Puerto Rican rooming house when they buy it, but the promise is that it will be delivered empty) and he sets to work restoring it:
Lowell shrugged pleasantly and went about his work. He had a long row to hoe, but he was industriously hoeing it. His marriage was a shambles and the house was a mess beyond his wildest dreams, but the odd thing was that, though surrounded by wreckage, he felt he was actually getting somewhere for the first time in his life. Where exactly he was getting or what he would do when he got there were matters of conjecture, but there could be little doubt that he was on his way at last. He was struggling against forces and odds. He was pulling a load. He was thinking. He was actually thinking. Using his brain, he was attacking problems that were not only relatively coherent but in some cases capable of rational achievement. He’d actually solved some of them.
Davis was himself a “Brownstoner” (as novelist Jonathan Lethem, a childhood neighbor of Davis, points out in the intro) and, despite the short shrift I am giving it here, it is that experience that provides the real strength of the book — the humor of the first half turns into a much more sombre contemplation of just what is involved in introducing “change” in Brooklyn. It is to the author’s credit that, as the book approaches its fortieth anniversary, A Meaningful Life bears fruitful comparison with two of the more popular novels of 2009.
The first is Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here) and not just because both books are set in that New York borough. Like Toibin’s central character, Eilis Lacey, Lowell Lake is motivated by following “the path of least resistance”. Like Eilis, that produces more disasters than successes, despite its passive appeal — also like Eilis, the conscious decisions that Lowell does make tend to produce even worse results. The two may have arrived in Brooklyn from opposite directions, but they have much in common.
Davis’ portrayal of Brooklyn also brought back memories of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin (reviewed here), another 2009 novel which has received a lot of praise. Like McCann, Davis explores New York’s underside and the difficulty that new arrivals to the city have in coping with it. The streets weren’t paved with gold in 1971 when Davis wrote this book or across the river in New York City proper where McCann’s novel is set in roughly the same period and they aren’t paved with gold now either.
A Meaningful Life is one of those excellent novels that deliberately takes some time to establish and fill out its central character, which Davis does with significant amounts of humor. That done, he turns the passive Idaho boy loose in one of the world’s most urban environments — and that’s when the real story begins. If you liked Brooklyn, Let The Great World Spin or both, make time for A Meaningful Life; in many ways, it is a better novel than either of them.