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A Meaningful Life (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – March 10, 2009

3.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"... one of the strangest novels I have ever read: a crazed parable in which the protagonist, Lowell Lake, and his marriage undergo a constantly regenerating process of mental and physical disintegration. Quite mad, it can be read poolside, roadside or mountainside: wherever you are, you'll be Lake-side." – Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

"The story, delivered with terrific brio, proceeds as a phantasmagoria of urban decay and heightened obsession. It is also extremely funny if you can put politically correct scruples to the side - which should be easy enough as the true butt of the novel is Lowell himself."    —Katherine Powers, The Boston Globe

"Stultified by his job (editing a plumbing magazine) and his mind-numbing marriage ('a cross between Long Day's Journey into Night and Father Knows Best'), frustrated novelist Lowell Lake welcomes a new obsession: renovating a monstrously dilapidated mansion in a Brooklyn slum. What follows, in L.J. Davis's deadpan 1971 novel A Meaningful Life, reissued by NYRB Classics, is pure chaos, as Lowell confronts a cast of urban squatters, in some of the most brilliant comic turns this side of Alice in Wonderland. A cathartic read for urban pioneers." --O, The Oprah Magazine

"A rediscovered American classic from the 1970s, this is a darkly comic portrayal of broken dreams." --Waterstone Books Quarterly

"Here's a real rediscovery...This strange comic masterwork is compared to the work of Kingsley Amis in Jonathan Lethem's new introduction. That's almost right, but the feel is darker, and there's a touch of Patricia Highsmith too; it's all about gentrification, and, ultimately, madness." --The Los Angeles Times

“He has an erring sense of timing, of taste, of restraint. He has written some truly marvelous passages about New York. He has an absolute eye for the telling detail…An author who is clearly capable, funny at the proper times, both brutally and cheerfully perceptive.” –The New York Times

A novel that “has the authentically crazy tintinnabulation of our times…Mr. Blandings in a situation comedy by Kafka.” –Book World

“[Davis] has a fine comic gift; a clear-eyed view of those who imagine that mere accumulation is life itself.” –Paula Fox

“Davis is seen by some as a kind of Evelyn Waugh of the American urban crisis.” –The Washington Post

About the Author

L. J. Davis was  an author and prize-winning journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, Mother Jones, and Harper’s, among other publications.

Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels, including Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. He lives in Brooklyn and in Maine.


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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 214 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (March 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590173007
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590173008
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #271,234 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The first hundred pages of this book are among the best and funniest written about the "domestic politics of exhaustion." Lowell Lake quietly and desperately employs passive resistance in the quotidian war with his wife. For her part, she throws away his clothes and his birth certificate, tells Lowell that she hates how he sits in a chair, manipulates him into moving closer to her parents and wields casual cruelty like a rapier. In one of his few moments of insight or enthusiasm, Lowell blurts out to his wife during their relocation to her home in New York that he is the first member of his family to cross back east over the Mississippi in over a hundred years. Her response: "Big deal."

Unfortunately, the second half of the book focuses less on his marriage in order to recount Lowell's attempt to create an identity by renovating a broken down home in Brooklyn. He makes a game attempt but Lowell Lake is a man who has no friends, can't catch a ball and has so little clue that he prefers Linda Thorsen to Diana Rigg on the Avengers. (How's that for an obscure pop cultural reference by Davis?) Lake's failed effort lifts him almost to the level of a tragic hero but the reader remembers him more as the man who wakes up at night and intones aloud, "I am not a nerd."

This a quick and very enjoyable book. Read it for the priceless portraits of Lake's in-laws and for the new level of meaning Lowell Lake's existence brings to the word "meaningful."
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Why is it we like Lowell Lake? He is hardly engaged in the world and seems to look down on all those he comes across as bizarre science experiments. Yet, we root for him and wish him every success as he struggles to find meaning in a life that has to this point largely just happened to him. Perhaps it is because he is finally taking the reigns and since he finds no reward in his work or his wife, we hope he will find something - anything. His wife, like most spouses, cuts quickly to the heart of his problem, saying, "That's just great. I can't tell you how that idea really grabs me. What do you think this is? The Jackie Gleason Show?... I have to travel three thousand miles and work my *** off for four years in order to marry a New York cab driver?... I don't believe it. I've never worn a house dress in my life. At least you could have said you wanted to be a riveter.... Riveters make good money and there'd be a nice little pension for me if you walked off a beam up there in the sky. I liked it better when you wanted to be a cowboy." So revealing regarding Lowell's lost boy persona.

The book also appealed because I love all things New York and am fascinated by the 1970's especially. Davis does a fantastic job communicating the social and economic forces of change taking place. Lowell's attempt to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn is almost voyeuristic. His encounters with the various characters are fun and I like to think accurate. The challenges that the renovation brings is at once pathetic, hopeful, and futile. The mansion he purchases and fixates on was built in the mid 19th century by a tycoon, Civil War hero, corporation lawyer, and adventurer.
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This is a book that has all of the elements of a great piece of American fiction that misses the mark in several ways. First, let me discuss what made this a good read. I enjoyed the way Davis describes his main protagonist's interactions with his wife, her family, and his parents. I also really enjoyed the chapter where the protagonist goes for the first time to visit the house he ultimately buys -- the scenes of him seeing those living there are incredibly well-written and memorable. Finally, I also liked the conclusion, which is crushing in many ways -- but very common to young men at such a stage of their life.

While this is a good read, it isn't great because Davis tries to do too much here. It becomes confusing, muddled, and a bit over the top. The possible murder? The possible affair? The feeble attempts by the protagonist to reconcile with his wife? All of this -- in the space of some 200 pages -- feels a bit scattered. It would have better, and perhaps more effective, had the story unfolded without some elements. The author could have explored the themes of West to East, decline of America, etc. without some of the more over-the-top aspects.

In the end, it is enjoyable and a good illustration of 1960s urban America, but not a classic.
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Format: Paperback
The problem with republishing a book from another era, even one as recent as 1970s New York, is that subtle contextual clues are hard to decipher, or are miss read. More than any other publisher, the NYRBs is willing to find and reprint these minor classics, and to pay for new introductions that provide the necessary context. The introduction to this volume by Jonathan Lethem is a prime example.

The book is divided into two segments in the life of Lowell Lake. The first is of a clueless inoffensive Midwestern youth who pays for his entire Stanford education by accidentally blackmailing a judge. Really. He managed to notice virtually nothing about his surroundings until he is confronted with his mother-in-law the day before the wedding. This he notices, and he flees. But not far, and he returns. After graduation they accidentally end up in New York instead of Berkeley. Really. And after discovering that he has no natural born ability to be a novelist, or anything else, apparently, he wanders into a job as the managing editor of a plumbing magazine. There is every reason to believe he will retain that boring job married to his boring wife, living his thoroughly boring life. But slowly he shifts, in teeny tiny ways, and instead of boredom he feel restlessness and as it rises he can tell that something will need to change.

Enter stage right...Brooklyn in the 1970s! No boredom anywhere in sight. Instead we have danger, insanity, racial hatred, greed. A sure antidote to boredom. Jonathan Lethem's introduction reminds us of that era and in particular the section of Brooklyn where Lethem's parents and the Davis' had brownstones. Lethem grew up with Davis' son, and we are given a short portrait of an author as quirky as the novel's characters.
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