L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life

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.

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life

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.


  1. Well it should appeal to the American miserablist in you, Jon – I know he’s never far from the surface.

    God knows it’s risky making specific recommendations, but I do think this book would appeal to Richard Yates fans. Kirsty, read the first chapter (about 35 pages if memory serves) and then move it further up or down your wishlist as appropriate!

  2. I is back from my travels John. I took three books, one of which was recommended by your good self. Two of the books were complete garbage, one fantastic. Drum roll please…. Poppy and Dingan was the one for me. Absolutely loved it, one of the best ever. A blockbuster like you said. So much in only eighty odd pages. It goes down as an all time fav for me. Cheers for the tip!

  3. Where you come up with all these little-known tomes, John, I’ll never know. Another for my TBR list. Last year, I read Firmin, the Adventures of a Mouse, by Sam Savage, who happens to be from Madison, Wisconsin, a college city I lived in for 22 years. Firmin is a fine book that you recommended. I notice that Sam Savage has another novel on the way, “The Cry of the Sloth”.

  4. One of my favorite books of this decade was It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick. When I read that Chadwick had been influenced by Something Happened, I picked it up. More relevantly, I read it. Some really great passages, but by midway it had become crushingly repetitive and dislikable, so I had to put it down.

    1. I’ve read Something Happened three times, JMW. The first time it took me about a month to read, because it was so “crushingly repetitive”, but I couldn’t quite abandon it. The second time I thought it was a masterpiece of black comedy on the human condition, which remains my underlying view. The third time, I was a little older, and found it more chilling than funny, but still with great admiration for Heller’s relentless pursuit of what he wanted the book to be (my god, it took him thirteen years to write. The sheer bloodyminded self-confidence alone is worth something). Certainly Bob Slocum is dislikable, but entirely honest – and for that didn’t translate to the book being dislikable.

      I remember looking at It’s All Right Now when it was published – isn’t that the one by a septuagenarian, who had been working on it for decades?

  5. This book is wonderful. So many books promoted as being blackly comic are in fact only able to draw forth a wry smile every now and then, but this one made me laugh often (and uncomfortably). I’d love to read more of Davis’s books, but wonder whether his first was his best.

    I wish I could agree with you on ‘Poppy and Dingan’, but I found it eminently resistable and a bit twee. And it completely failed to be like the place it was supposedly set–much as you might feel if a Texan, say, wrote a book set in Belfast without knowing anything about it.

  6. This sounds interesting, John. Any reference to “Something Happened” is a good one for me. I’ve read that book twice and enjoyed it both times although it’s been a long time since I read it.

    I checked my local library and they have another book by Davis but not this one. I’ll have to put it on my list of potential future buys. I’m really into the whole neglected books thing, so it holds interest for me just on the basis of that. I love that the NYRB has rescued some of these old worthies.

  7. I want more L.J. Davis. The book, perfectly sized, is hilarious and brutal and the ending, well, the ending’s unexpected but so…right. I buy and read the NYRB’s as they’re issued and each one always, without fail, becomes the best book I’ve read that year (until the next NYRB arrives). Current squeeze is Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show, which nearly made me miss my stop on the train this morning. These things are little jewels. Hard to believe they’re out of print.

  8. Well nicknick, I have my eye on some Sylvia Townsend Warner, though I was thinking first of Mr Fortune’s Maggot which I believe is her most famous, and which NYRB reissued a while ago. (I also tend to assume that they reissue the best ones first. Is that unfair?) Anyway I agree with you on the NYRB series generally: even when I don’t quite chime with the book, it’s invariably extremely interesting.

    That parenthesis also supplies my proposed answer to JRSM’s question – I reckon it probably is his best, and Davis in the article I linked to calls it his most “serious” book.

    John, why not check out the other Davis book anyway? Let us know anyway what you make of it whenever you do read something by him. And I’m glad to meet another Something Happened fan.

    1. John,

      I picked up the Davis book over the weekend. It was called “Cowboys Don’t Cry”. I read about 90 pages but I’m afraid I couldn’t stick with it. It started out being pretty funny but it was getting less funny and harder to believe as it went on. This doesn’t mean of course that someone else wouldn’t like it. I’m a notoriously impatient reader. If something doesn’t grab me in the first 70 pages, I rarely continue with it.

      As regards “Something Happened”, I can remember the consternation that ensued when it first came out. I mean, Heller had written “Catch-22”, a war spoof, and the critics thought they knew what to expect from him. Then “Something Happened” dropped like a brick on their desks.

      There were those who recognized the book’s greatness right away. But a much more common reaction among the critics was pure befuddlement. I can remember quite a few of them complaining that it was “too personal”–as though Heller were writing about his own life. They just didn’t know what to make of it.

      Heller never came to close to writing anything nearly as good again but at least we have this book.

      1. That’s a shame, John, about Cowboys Don’t Cry, but I think 90 pages is a fair run to give a book. I noticed that Edwin Frank, the estimable editor of NYRB Classics, commented that A Meaningful Life became less funny and more black as it went on. I’d agree with that to an extent, though having read Frank’s comment before the book, it led me to expect a much darker second half. Don’t get me wrong: there is terrible stuff going on and an uncompromising end, but the tone remains fairly similar throughout which takes the edge off somewhat.

        I agree with you on Something Happened, particularly that Heller never wrote anything as good again – I read Good as Gold which was funny but had the sense of him going through his rhetorical hoops, and a few pages of later stuff like God Knows and Picture This (a Heller novel which has been more or less wiped from the record, so far as I can see), persuaded me that I’d already seen the best of him.

        If you haven’t read it before, do look at Vonnegut’s review of Something Happened which I linked to in the body of the blog post above. I think he nails it square.

  9. ‘Mr Fortune’s Maggot’ is very good, but Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, if you can find some, are absolutely wonderful.

    1. Thanks JRSM. I was in London yesterday where I did my usual scurrying about larger bookstores for books I can’t get back home, and tried and failed to find the NYRB Classics of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s books (Lolly Willowes and Mr Fortune’s Maggot) but drew a blank even in the fine LRB shop. It seems the latter anyway, as well as a volume of stories, is in print in the UK under the Virago Modern Classics imprint (presumably why other editions can’t be sold in the UK), but my NYRBophilia didn’t permit me to purchase them. I will have to break embargoes and go online.

  10. I’ve stumbled across the NYRB series before, but never gave much thought to it; looking at the site it does provide an intriguing and meaningful list of books.

  11. Anything NYRB publishes gets my attention. I read A Meaningful Life but found it slow to warm up to–although I did push to stick with it and am glad I did.

    Thanks again for the tip on the name/blog reference.

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