A Meaningful Life
By L. J. Davis
NYRB Classics, 214 pages, $14.95
A funny thing happens when you grow up in New York. For 18 or 20 years, everyone you know is growing up here, too. Then one day you walk into a party and someone tells you, “I never met anyone from New York before!” And you discover that, without actually going anywhere, you’re suddenly in someone else’s sausage factory, the place where kids from Ohio come to reinvent themselves.
These days they have to live in Bushwick; in the 1990s, they went to the whitest parts of Williamsburg; but in the 1970s, before cosmopolitans, some of them went to more southerly parts of Brooklyn, bought up buildings, kicked out the blacks and Puerto Ricans, and paved the way for premium coffee and new kinds of class anxiety. L. J. Davis’ novel A Meaningful Life, first published in 1971 and reissued this month by NYRB Classics, captures this bitter moment perfectly, as well as the strange, foreign fantasies that drove it.
Lowell Lake, our Midwestern hero, after a Stanford education paid for by his accidental blackmail of a local judge, plans to move with his new wife to Berkeley, but at the last minute, she shames him into choosing New York instead. She, herself, is from Brooklyn, and Lowell can’t tell from her passive-aggressive put-downs whether she actually wants to go, but he sticks to the decision just to spite her, or to prove something to her, or to himself—or God knows why.
Some years later, Lowell’s life has become a monotonous, childless, pointless round of useless, empty work at a second-rate plumbers’ trade weekly; repetitive, unfulfilling dinners with his wife; and occasional excruciating visits to her horrible parents. When the book begins, shortly after his 30th birthday, Lowell has just realized with terror that his life is completely meaningless. He wrestles with the problem from all possible directions. Here’s one example that exemplifies both the insight and the crablike movement of Mr. Davis’ prose:
“The true villain, he realized now, was not his wife, and no doubt she would be glad to hear it, if only she would allow Lowell to talk about it one of these days; he would have to choose his words carefully. The true villain wasn’t Lowell, either, although his part in the affair could scarcely be described as distinguished. The real villain was their marriage. Lowell saw it all now. Starting as a contract haphazardly entered into, their marriage gradually evolved into a kind of conspiracy to protect Lowell and his wife from the unpleasant shocks of what passed with other people as normal life.”
Of course the real answer is that Lowell’s life is meaningless because it’s always been meaningless—if you don’t think anything, want anything or believe in anything in the first place, coming to New York won’t help you. But it’s hard to face this; and you are in New York, after all, so it may look like the answer is real estate: Putting his marriage in peril, Lowell drops most of the money he’s saved (money his wife, somehow, doesn’t quite know about) on a decrepit rooming house in Brooklyn that used to be a mansion, and begins the long, horrible process of evicting its impoverished inhabitants and trying to restore its onetime glory. It’s not clear what will happen when he finishes: Live in its 20 rooms? Rent them out? Certainly his wife has no plans to leave their place in Manhattan. (She feels the way my father does: Growing up in Brooklyn is goddamn well enough.)
In the end, Lowell becomes a drunk; destroys his marriage; learns that he needs to hire a contractor; kills someone; and, finally, at the very, very end, faces facts: “Everything had gone wrong, and he had succeeded at nothing, and he was never going to have any kind of life at all.” Kids from Ohio be warned!
Of course, what Mr. Davis (who will be reading with Jonathan Lethem on March 31 at Community Bookstore in Park Slope) fails to mention is that the following year, a really cool coffee shop opened up just down the block.
Will Heinrich is the author of The King’s Evil (Scribner). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.