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.


Ellen said...

We could also take it as tragic. How does it end? Does the man stay in his house and make a new happy life? Or return to the wife and plumbing trade newspaper.

I have decided our wild dream of NYC cannot be done and more than ever understand the grieving of the characters in Chekhov who face up at the end of each play that they shall not go to Moscow.

We saw a very moving play last night: on the surface, hilariously funny, actually frantic kind of laughter: 3 old man, one half-mad, one dying, and one whose sanity makes him see the limitations of his existence as so pathetic. They are veterans living in a nursing home under the domination of one nun, Sister Madeleine, who persists in giving birthday parties. One man for whom she gives one one day commits suicide the next.

We see our "Heroes" only on the terrace in the park, talking over what occurs outside our vision. They wish to go somewhere, and the choices are Indochina (the house in Brooklyn? NYC?), a picnic (the doable) or going up to the top of the hill with a stone statue dog (he's their pet, as I have two kittens).

Too bad plays like this can't circulate more widely. They can't.

The NYRB series is a treasure. I have several volumes and have been able to teach _Ox Bow Incident_ and _A Month in the Country_ because of it.



It's tragicomic. A black comedy. And comparing A Meaningful Life to Chekhov might be right. This character is very hard on himself, and buying the house is the one real action of his adult life. But it's all about demolition: he cannot build. I did laugh out loud at parts of this book, but overall Lowell is a sad character.

David Birkett said...

I'm a great fan of the NYRB children's books, as well as children's and young adult fiction in general. The NYRB kids' books seem to have two basic formats, both in hardback and both featuring gorgeous illustrations as well as enchanting text. Of the smaller books, I've just read The Crane, by Reiner Zimnik, a wonderful modern parable about work, dedication, dreams and, well...cranes. I can also recommend 2 books on mythology, D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths and D'Aulaires' Book of Trolls, both of which explore these well-trodden subjects with a beautiful and unique visual sensibility.

I'm not familiar with the adult titles, although I've often seen them in bookshops and been attracted by their design. They are on the radar, however.

NYRB is definitely a publisher that succeeds in creating books that delight the hand and eye as well as the sprit.


I love NYBR books. They've reprinted several Viragos (May Sinclair, Rebecca West) and many breathtaking novels in translation which I would not otherwise have read.

The children's books do look beautifully designed. I thought about buying The House of Arden, because Nesbit was one of my favorite writers when I was a child, but I already nostalically bought some and find I don't read them. But I agree that children's and YA books can be fascinating. My teacher friends occasionally tell me about some good ones.

I do believe NYBR has a YA title by John Wyndham, The Chrysalids, a science fiction book, that I may get around to eventually. I love Day of the Triffids!