What a pleasure it is to write about a book that I loved without complication. For those academics even now preparing studies on whether or not the new social media can actually sell books, chalk one up for me. Already an admirer of NYRB Classics, I bought this book when they mentioned it on Twitter or Facebook or, you know, one of those sites. We owe a debt of gratitude to novelist Jonathan Lethem, who lobbied for its reissue, and to NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank, who listened.
A Meaningful Life was first – and last – published in 1971, and until now had not even reached a paperback edition. Says Davis in this fascinating piece about the background to the book and its rediscovery, “It came out and nothing happened.” (Hugo Wilcken, take heart.) There really is no excuse for this, as it’s the most miserably funny book I’ve read all year.
The meaningful life of the title is sought by Lowell Lake, who one day shortly after his 30th birthday, wakes up with “the sudden realization that his job was not temporary.”
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. Big deal. But it was all he was good for, and he was stuck with it.
Here we are then, in the territory previously occupied by any number of dissatisfied suburban workers: Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road; Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt; Bob Slocum in Something Happened; Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The ease with which I can recall examples indicates how much I’ve enjoyed these books; but do we need another? Did we in 1971?
Well, it didn’t hurt. Davis executes his tale with much more open wit than the others: Something Happened is a very funny novel but is “black humour … with the humour removed”, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, as the author “cripples his own jokes intentionally.” A Meaningful Life is more straightforward, more seductive than that, and in that sense all the more impressive for allowing no light at the end of the tunnel for its ‘hero’. It is different from Something Happened in that there, the narrator makes his own miserable comedy; here, the jokes are all on Lowell Lake. But like Heller’s book – like the best comic writing – it comes unsweetened, tempered by an undertow – an overflow – of despair.
Lowell, an inadequate man, is surrounded by inadequates, such as his boss, Crawford, the editor of the plumbing trade monthly, who fears an office coup, “that someday they would contrive to get him no matter what he did to stop them.” Or his father-in-law, Leo, whose relentlessly droning smalltalk drives Lowell to distraction (“Lowell was afraid to open his mouth for fear of screaming in the little man’s face”). It even, in a nicely astute moment, begins to infect Lowell’s perception of his wife:
“Great”, said Lowell, noticing with a sinking feeling that her last sentence had been spoken with her father’s inflection and ended with her father’s phrase. He’d never noticed a thing like that in her voice before. He began to listen for it, and shortly his fears were confirmed. It was there all right, coming and going like the odor of burning tires in a rose garden.
This is how he got here. Lowell, frustrated in his job, silently bored by his marriage, decided to do a Frank Wheeler and move to a new life: not to Europe but to New York from his western home. Unlike Frank Wheeler, he never got around to putting it off:
There was no getting out of it. Afloat on a tide of events and furiously propelled by his wife, he gave notice at the library, renouncing his scholarship at the Berkeley, and told everyone in sight that he’d decided to go to New York, desperately hoping that someone would give him some smart-sounding and compelling reason for doing no such blame-fool thing, but no one did. On the contrary, the more people he told about it, the more it seemed like he was actually going to go.
As Lowell brings himself with him, the new life feels very much like the old life: and not a very meaningful one at that. What he does to try to overturn this is the central plot of the book: he buys a Brooklyn brownstone “of such surpassing opulent hideousness that Lowell could scarcely believe that someone was actually offering to sell it to him. It was just the kind of place he’d always really wanted with a powerful subconscious craving that defied analysis.” His project to refurbish the building is undertaken on the very good grounds that busy fingers are happy fingers; but it never occurs to Lowell that the question “How can I have a meaningful life?” is one which, once asked, cannot be satisfactorily answered.
The chapter which shows Lowell meeting the existing tenants of the building, who will need to be evicted, is the weakest section of the book. Davis is by far at his best when trapping Lowell in the crucibles of family and work. There are some brilliant set pieces, masterclasses in comic writing, including one where Lowell tries to bribe a city man during the planning process, and another where he is accidentally anti-semitic during an argument with his mother-in-law. Davis excels in taking the comedy of discomfort and stretching it further than it should go.
The prose in A Meaningful Life is fast on its feet and often surprising. You can read the first chapter here; if you like it, this is a book for you. In a book where the central character’s “concrete desires” seem to him to be “almost facts”, it’s a relief when hopes and expectations for a book are more than fulfilled in reality.