Conversation: Jonathan Lethem & L.J. Davis Ponder ‘A Meaningful Life’

BY Arts Desk  April 2, 2009 at 5:44 PM EST

'A Meaningful Life' by L.J. Davis“I know what my problem is. I’m not having a meaningful life. There you have it in a nutshell.”

L.J. Davis’ 1971 novel, “A Meaningful Life,” re-published with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem, is a black humor romp into the bowels of life’s greatest disappointments: fruitless writing, loveless marriage, an empty job, and some unsuccessful real estate speculation. Even more, the novel dives into the moral ambiguity of gentrification, a theme Davis and Lethem have both addressed throughout their careers living and working in Brooklyn. Lethem, whose acclaimed novels “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Fortress of Solitude” also have Brooklyn as their backdrop, grew up down the street from Davis and had been a friend of his son. In a conversation recorded for Art Beat, Lethem told Davis, “Years later, your books helped me give a name to my own conflicts, not to resolve them necessarily, but at least to speak of them.” Both he and Jonathan Lethem still live in Brooklyn.

You can listen to their conversation, recorded for Art Beat, here:

A former Guggenheim Fellow, L.J. Davis authored four novels and two works of nonfiction, was a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, among other publications, and won the National Magazine Award for predicting the stock market crash of 1987. And while the themes of “A Meaningful Life” – the dissolution of a carefully constructed life, obsession with real estate – sound familiar, Davis’ literary take is funnier, and potentially darker, than what you might expect.

The novel follows a young Lowell Lake from college to the tribulations of early adulthood in search of meaning; a joyless marriage and an unsuccessful attempt at writing a novel in a tiny apartment in Manhattan ensue. His situation quickly devolves: Lowell drinks often and keeps to himself. His clothes begin disintegrate, as do his senses of time and his surroundings. He finds himself a “man who suddenly wonders if he’s been wearing his shoes on the wrong feet for thirty hours.”

He gets a quiet job at a plumbing magazine, having never fixed a pipe in his life. The monotony makes a slow-motion crawl to insanity that would make Kafka proud. “Any idiot could do this kind of work,” Lowell snarls to his coworkers as he teeters on the edge of a breaking point. Acting on a thin memory of an article he read, Lowell recalls, “Creative young people were buying houses in the Brooklyn slums, integrating all-Negro blocks, and coming firmly to grips with poverty and municipal corruption. It was the stuff of life.”

On impulse and against his wife’s will, Lowell purchases a decrepit rooming house in Fort Greene. The house, a former mansion turned macabre mess, was situated on a block consumed by “scandal and chicanery, bribery and extortion, swindles, boondoggles, low cunning, and naked greed…in colorful parade before [Lowell’s] eyes and he loved every minute of it.”

Lowell’s journey from Manhattan to Brooklyn is one from apathy to passion, and then beyond passion to the edge of what most of us would call madness. He sets out to demolish, room by room, the lives the past inhabitants left, but loses his mind in the midst. His devolution culminates in a deplorable act, committed in a rage of drink and darkness. In the end, he is left with the shell of an unfinished house and a blight on his blurred conscience: “Everything had gone wrong, and he had succeeded at nothing, and was never going to have any kind of life at all.” An ending that, Davis admits, is entirely necessary to capture the moral ambiguity of gentrification, and even further, Lethem adds, to capture the failure of a sort of Manifest Destiny.

The gentrification that Davis and protagonist Lowell Lake pioneered (when most thought they were crazy to try) is now commonplace in many of New York’s outer boroughs. In the introduction to the book, Lethem marvels at the fact that Davis raised two black daughters alongside his two biological sons, making his home “a kind of allegory of the neighborhood…partly in order that he might refuse to stand above or apart from it. After almost 30 years, re-published in an era that floats phrases like post-racial across cyberspace, Davis’ novel still illuminates the paradoxes, both personal and political, of the search for a meaningful life.