In “A Meaningful Life” everything is all wrong

I’ve recommended Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem as one of the funniest detective stories I’ve ever read.  When I learned Lethem wrote the introduction for this year’s reissue of L. J. Davis’s Brooklyn novel A Meaningful Life (originally published in 1971), I took note and bought it. Reading Davis’s story, I laughed like I laughed with Motherless Brooklyn.

The plot summary: The novel’s protagonist Lowell Lake wakes one morning not long after his 30th birthday to a panic attack. He realizes his New York life isn’t going to get any better, or worse. The managing editor of a second-rate plumbing trade weekly, he sits in a cubicle slightly larger than a toilet stall. His marriage is equally small in affection. Everything is all wrong about his life, including, Lowell realizes, how little of it he’s spent thinking. To break free, he buys a fixer-upper on a crime-ridden Brooklyn street. All of this is fodder upon which Davis hangs his smartly dark and breezy comedy. Here and there it’s un-PC in an Archie Bunker sort of way, probably more so now than it was 38 years ago.

Davis’s humor deeply darkens when Lowell gets over his head with the Brooklyn project and commits a murder. That crime feels forced and over-imagined, and the book ends lacking much of its original punch. Davis delivers one of the most depressing last lines ever to be written. But we must keep in mind that Lowell’s fate is to live a life in which success eludes him. In that light, the final verdict about this hapless New Yorker settles into its context of dark comedy, and A Meaningful Life remains a funny book. Right up there with Motherless Brooklyn.