” Lowell Lake was a tall man, rather thin, with thin sandy hair and a distant, preoccupied though amiable disposition, as though the world did not reach him as it reaches other men and all the voices around him were pleasant but very faint. His attention was liable to wander of at any time and he was always asking people to repeat things. He gave the impression that people bored him, although not in a bad way: actually, they seemed to lull him. He was frequently discovered half-asleep at his desk, gazing vacantly out the nearest window. ” (1:3)
L.J. Davis’s 1971 novel is obviously not about home repair or the outrage of renovating a crime-ridden neighborhood in Brooklyn. The demolition of a mansion, crumbling and wrecked, inhabited by wretches, is only a trick that Davis has grounded the novel’s point of view in a character who is not fully awake—metaphorically speaking. Lowell Lake wakes up one day shortly after his thirtieth birthday with the sudden realization that his job as a managing editor of a second-rate plumbing magazine is not temporary—his career ceiling is capped.
Every so often—although with steadily diminishing frequency—a weak urge, a kind of feeble longing, would afflict him, and he would feel the old need to get something down on paper, start another novel, work up a story, something. (3:80)
Lowell seems to have no control over his life. Complaisance. He always strives to remain beneath any situation that may arise; so passive is he that he would deliberately loses an argument to avoid making a scene. That’s exactly what happened with his in-laws, who haunted him so much that he drove into a desert. Instead of living a proactive life, which he tries, by writing a novel, but fails, he just goes with the flow. This agnosticism, however, is far more extensive in Lowell than it is in most people smart enough to go through Stanford. But we are not to think he is any intellectual. When hi discovers a beautiful crumbling mansion in the slum of Brooklyn, and against all advice, not to mention the will of his wife with whom he is locked in a loveless marriage of nine years, sinks his every penny into buying it. He quits the job, moves in, and devotes all his time on demolition and construction. Restoring the shambles of the house to its past glory becomes his sole mission, a ticket to redemption of a life that has been meaningless. But does he find it in revamping the derelict house and defending it from the bums?
His marriage was a shambles and the house was a mess beyond his wildest dreams, but the odd thing was that, though surrounded by wreckage, he felt he was actually getting somewhere for the first time in his life. (5:130)
Whether he succeeds or not, which Davis holds off to the very end and that which comes with a twist, Lowell is for sure struggling against forces and odds. Having drifted through life, he seems to realize (or being completely clueless) that the only way to approach life is to place himself in uncomfortable situations. A Meaningful Life is about a man who wills himself a meaningful life by restoring a collapsing house to its glory. But unknowingly to him, he’s the house himself—standing a slim chance of revival. It’s the classic catch-22 of trying to beat the system but one is the system. Without knowing the shape of life’s meaning, how does one expect to find it? Davis doesn’t give the cause of effect of Lowell, who is merely gliding through somnolence, making poor decisions without his knowing, and thus bringing about unexpected consequences. The beginning of the novel, which delineates how Lowell is trapped in the bickerings of dreadful in-laws and work, is far better-written and funnier than the second half. Davis is at his best with such comedy of discomfort. He is a welcoming discovery.
214 pp. NYRB Softcover. [Read/
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