A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis

Purchased at Chapters.ca

A Meaningful Life is proof positive why serious readers are glad that NYRB Classics exists. First published in 1971, it promptly dropped from sight and remained there until this edition was published last year. John Self at the Asylum discovered it (and his review includes details of the novel’s history and and some background links that I won’t repeat here) and loved it so much that the book made his year-end best list — that was recommendation enough for me to give it a try.

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.

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13 Responses to “A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis”

  1. Trevor Says:

    When John reviewed this I pulled it off the bookstore shelf to see what it would look like in my library. When I saw that the protagonist was from Idaho, I bought the book, not with the intention of reading it right away but knowing I’d read it soon. I still haven’t read it, but I remember now that I need to.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I’m pretty sure you are quite a bit more self-directed than Lowell Lake is, but I think his journey will provoke some memories and comparisons. It is an entertaining, relatively quick read — save it for a time when you are looking to do a bit of chuckling while you read.

  3. John Self Says:

    Great to be reminded of this one, Kevin, and I found myself chuckling all over again not at the summaries and excerpts in your review, and reminding myself that this is one that I will need to revisit again, perhaps regularly. Already the quotes I put in my own review are coming back to me as though they have been familiar all my life.

    Davis has written a couple of other novels, hasn’t he? I wonder if any of them are worth unearthing.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: First, thanks for finding this one — it is an engrossing story. Wikipedia says he wrote four other novels, none of which seem to be in print from a quick scan of online sites. As far as I can tell, he headed off to Harpers in the late 1970s and has produced a couple of business-oriented books since. I’m interested in Cowboys Don’t Cry from the title (that’s the Albertan in me) but may need to do some casting about to see whether it is worth looking for a used copy. My inclination is to revisit this one in a few months — I get the feeling already that parts of it demand repeat savoring. And given Lethem’s homage to him, I’m inclined to look at some of Lethem’s Brooklyn books, which are unfamiliar to me. I’m not a sci-fi fan but The Fortress of Solitude has some appeal.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    Better than Toibin’s Brooklyn? Wow. It must be a damn fine book. And having been a managing editor myself, albeit an ambitious one who couldn’t wait for my editor to move on (she didn’t, so I did), I reckon this one may be right down my street.

  6. William Rycroft Says:

    Sold!

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: There is another connection (I’m stretching here, I admit) for you too — the notion of “reverse migration”. Just as Lowell migrated back across the Mississippi, you migrated back from Australia to the metropolitan centre of the mother country. Davis is also a bit of an odd case in that he himself migrated from writing novels to being a contributing editor at Harpers — most of the traffic goes from journalism to fiction, not the other way around. Also, please note the “in many ways” qualifier in the comparison with Brooklyn. I certainly liked both books.

  8. leroyhunter Says:

    I’m another who came to this book via John Self’s review & recommendation…so thanks to him for that. Davis should be offering him some kind of royalty share…!

    This book was a real find for me, I enjoyed it immensely. My only regret was that having finished it I felt it was a one-off, with pleasures unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Maybe that’s unfair, I don’t know much about Davis’ other work (but looks like there’s not much to know), but I’d be surprised if the combination of viciousness and aching comedy has many parallels. I have Something Happened by Heller lined up as being in a similar vein, so am looking forward to that.

    Your precis is very fair Kevin, and your comparisons are interesting. Both Brooklyn and Let The Great World Spin are works I’ve considered but not found enough of a hook to buy or read.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroyhunter: Your “one-off” comment is interesting as I too wondered about this as I read the book. Given what I have read about Davis’ other novels, I’m not inclined to rush out and buy them. He did move on to a different future as a writer — being a contributing editor at Harper’s is not exactly poverty and his two “business” titles seem to have sold well in their time — but I suspect as a fiction writer this excellent volume pretty much sums up his contribution. Which is not a bad thing at all.

    I had thought about adding A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in as a comparison and your comment gives me the chance to do that. While set decades earlier, it does have some comparable themes. And, like Davis, Betty Smith wrote a handful of novels and is remembered only for this very excellent one. So as your comment implies, leroy, sometimes we have to accept one-offs for what they are.

    You should try one of the two 2009 books (I’d opt for Toibin but both have strengths) and perhaps consider Smith as a century anchor to the project. I may well return to it later this year since it has been a number of years since I read it.

  10. leroyhunter Says:

    Kevin, I agree about one-offs, if the search for something similar uncovers equally distinctive works then all to the good.

    I’m aware of the title “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”, but know nothing about the book itself…will investigate. Your preference for Toibin probably echoes my own inclination but I might leave that one a while. Funnily, the one writer I’m not inspired to read by A Meaningful Life is Jonathan Lethem. A misjudgement on my part, I wonder?

    I would recommend one book for anyone who enjoyed this one: What’s For Dinner by James Schuyler. It’s more a study of suburban mores but has a pleasant sharpness that is reminiscent of Davis. It’s also from NYRB so that says something; having read it I grabbed Schuyer’s only other novel Alfred & Guinevere first chance I had (but am yet to read it).

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroy: It has been more than a decade since I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — my memories of it are very fond, but not very precise. It is one that I have mentally marked for a reread sometime.

    Thanks for the pointer on Schuyler, whose work I don’t know. I’ll include it in my next order — the NYRB description suggests comparisons with Richard Yates and aspects of Mad Men.

  12. leroyhunter Says:

    Apt comparisons, Kevin, albeit I didn’t get a strong ‘period’ sense from the book to make those explicit links. There are traces of optimism in it as well that I rarely find in Yates.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’d missed this review, or forgotten about it, but it sounds like an excellent book. I saw the comment in your review of What’s for Dinner, linking the two, and followed it.

    I’m snowed under bookwise presently, but I have a list I keep of blog recommendations that I intend to purchase, this is going on that list.

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