Sunday, April 26, 2009
A Meaningful Life
If you’ve been living in a cave, or depending on bookstores with a limited stock of reprint publishers, you may be unfamiliar with the NYBR series, which includes stunning titles like Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, Tatyana Tolstoya’s The Slynx, and Richard Hughes’ The Fox in The Attic. The latest addition to the series, L. J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life, is stellar: a comic masterpiece with disturbing elements, it follows the career of Boise-born Lowell Lake, an editor for a plumbing trade newspaper in New York, who wakes up one day at 30 with the epiphany that he’s wasting his life.
Who hasn’t had this revelation after a certain age? And what do you do to overcome it? In Lowell’s case, he buys a crumbling mansion which needs a total overhaul, in a dubiously gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood. His wife opposes this, and who could blame her after their tour of the filthy 22-room house, which has been a decrepit rooming house for quite a while? She announces that she'd prefer a trip to Aruba. Although they don't move to Brooklyn, Lowell satisfyingly spends his evenings at the house smashing partition walls and cleaning sludge from the basement, once the eccentric tenants are evicted.
He becomes obsessed with the life of the original owner, Collingwood, a rogue who was involved in many dubious business deals and lawsuits, and at one point fled to South America the day before the collapse of the Far Western Trading Association, leaving his partner to take the blame.
Since Lowell is a responsible, nice, law-abiding middle-class citizen, his fascination with Collingwood is a sign of his new determination to live wildly, whatever the cost. He's even disappointed that Collingwood was a heroic Civil War soldier. In his fantasies, he wants his Brooklyn counterpart to have led a totally disreputable life. And though Lowell is drunk all the time while working at the house, or swigging gin while watching Patty Duke reruns at home, it’s clear that he doesn’t know quite what he’s doing with a house in a mostly poor black neighborhood: the neighbors sit on the steps at all hours drinking and laughing, and the only people he can really relate to are the contractors he finally hires.
Each NYBR novel is introduced by a writer who champions it, and in this case Jonathan Lethem's enthusiastic essay about his personal friendship with Davis, having been the best friend of Davis's son while growing up in Brooklyn, can sell you on this book far better than I can. It makes you want to buy a house in Brooklyn. This 1971 novel is a smoothly written, quietly funny American classic.
You can read Lethem's introduction and the first chapter of A Meaningful Life here.
Posted by Frisbee at 9:08 AM