Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

A Meaningful Life

by L J Davis (1971; NYRB, 2009)

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 prιcis 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.

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press

Write to me