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Light on the Dark Side

Helen Levitt
Brooklyn, 1980s; photograph by Helen Levitt from her book Crosstown (2001). Levitt died last spring; a new collection of her work, Helen Levitt: Photographs 1937–1991, was published by powerHouse last year.

Again a gun had written finis to one of our sojourns. And almost to me. Martin had said more than once that I was a perilous voyager.

On Dean Street, at its western end at Hoyt, lived L.J. Davis and family, into whose house the future author of A Meaningful Life had put time, labor, skill, taste, and lots of money (I presumed) to make it habitable and beautiful even as he wrote his novels, one of which was Cowboys Don’t Cry. From his youth in Boise, Idaho, he knew about cowboys at first hand. We gossiped on the street with L.J. and others, went to parties at his place, where the talk was publishing and the guests were writers and literary agents. One hot June Sunday when I was in Philadelphia with my younger son visiting relatives, Martin, alone, began to feel a pain in his gut; it got worse. He called our Manhattan doctor (absent on a summer Sunday), the on-duty doctor (busy elsewhere), three doctors in the phone book (one said, correctly, “kidney stone,” another, “call the police”); the police said call a doctor.

Martin thought of L.J. and called him, by which time he was crawling on the floor, dragging the phone after him. Miraculously, L.J. was at home, the only other soul on the planet at home on that hot June afternoon. He came, looked in dismay at Martin on the floor, roused out the ambulance of the small Catholic hospital across the way from his house, and, disconcerted by the loud, incessant animal cries my husband was making, had him carried by ambulance to the hospital.

I remember L.J. as an energetic, voluble man whose interests (and writing) were not at all confined to the literary. He knew a lot about all sorts of things, one of which was finance. His impersonal way of greeting you was to announce without preliminary some remarkable, usually grotesque piece of local news or information.

L.J. was a writer. So was I. Yet he had an aura for me, all writers did, because my rarely present, utterly irresponsible, always laugh-inspiring drunk father had been a writer and for me an illuminated being.

L.J. is a serious comic writer. His novels mingle Groucho Marx, a bit of Noël Coward, and some Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser, for those who have forgotten or never known him, is grim, grim. I add to the mix Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Voyage to the End of the Night), a masterpiece of loathing. Davis is not only serious, he is stern. Life is a hard business that we need to think about. But all our thought doesn’t keep it from being outrageously grotesque, unsuccessful, ridiculous. If I may bring in another illustration, he is like a novel-writing Buster Keaton.

Lowell Lake is the protagonist of A Meaningful Life. Although poor, he managed to get hold of enough money to attend Stanford, where he met his Flatbush-born wife. She, after graduation, wished to live in Berkeley, he, a westerner, in New York. Lowell had thought he would drive a cab and write. (Before that he had wanted to be a cowboy.) “Great!” Betty had said.

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 ass 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.

But New York it was. He tried to write and his wife worked. Finally her uncle Lester got him a job as managing editor of a plumbing-trade monthly magazine. He went to work. “It’s about time,” said Betty.

The novel opens in Lowell’s Manhattan apartment, by now all too familiar, with a certain horror: he gets up early one morning so as “to be out of the room before…he had to watch his wife hoist on her girdle and buckle on her bra.” Betty, for her part, objects to the way the thin, tall, collapsing Lowell (whose newspaper vendor offers to thin out the Sunday Times for him so that it will be easier to carry) sits in his chair. “I hate it when you sit in a chair like that,” she says. “What’s wrong with the way I’m sitting?” he asks. “It’s weak. You’re sitting there in a weak way.”

His job bores him out of his head. He’d supposed it was temporary; it’s going on forever. Then Lowell hears about busy, active people rejuvenating old houses and slums. A drowning man, he reaches for a decayed mansion in a downtown Brooklyn slum to save himself.

Davis is not a writer tender of others’ susceptibilities. If you are born in Boise, Idaho, you—that is, Lowell—find two New York minorities (which doesn’t seem the right word for them) hard to deal with: his Flatbush Jewish in-laws and the black and Puerto Rican population of the downtown Brooklyn slum he buys into. His mother-in-law looks at him with a “What’s this?” expression and never addresses him directly. His short father-in-law always smiles obligingly and tells Lowell to call him Leo. A mild man, he would tell Hitler to call him Leo. He worries about “Negroes”—they are everywhere. Twice a year Lowell and his wife visit his in-laws’ plastic-covered apartment for a dinnerless afternoon. He is ignored by the mother, invited by the father to come again to hear the latter’s news about “Negroes.”

Until he meets his wife’s family, people had been

old and calm, the sort of people who made up their lives the same way they made up their beds, neat and clean and tight at the corners and no nonsense about the spread.

Now they had “comic-opera names like Marvin and Irving [and] lived in comic-opera places like Canarsie and Ozone Park.”

His wife, who had fled to California to get away from her family, now goes shopping at S. Klein’s with her mother and talks to her on the phone about what Lowell calls “a bunch of strangers.”

They’re not either strangers,” Betty says,

I’ve known Milly Norinski for years and years…. Count yourself lucky that I only talk about her to my mother. Listen, you want me to bore you? Ask me about Milly Norinski one of these times.

Lowell hears her bullying the butcher and fighting with the vegetable man. He can’t understand her anymore. She’s become a Jekyll-and-Hyde character.

Davis catches Betty’s speech exactly. I find her one of the stars of the book, of its Jewish side, though she has only one foot in it; in a petty bourgeois world of a pettiness I suppose real but impossible to conceive. But it is the black and Puerto Rican slum side of A Meaningful Life that rolls over and drowns Lowell and the reader in its crashing wave.

The mansion Lowell is going to purchase had been built over the years by a tycoon, a Civil War hero, corporation lawyer, and adventurer. It is “the townhouse of Darius Collingwood, foremost corporation lawyer in the Northeastern United States,” so the underage-looking real estate agent impressively names it when husband and wife come to inspect the nearby twenty-one-room Brooklyn structure.

One of the brilliancies of the novel is the biography Davis invents for Darius Collingwood, a parody in the antimacassar style of the late nineteenth century. Collingwood becomes the object of Lowell’s intensive research in his quest for the “traditions” he would acquire by purchase.

They survey the property from the street. It is a wreck of “such surpassing opulent hideousness that Lowell could scarcely believe someone was actually offering to sell it to him.”

It’s a rooming house,” Betty says. “Delivered vacant,” says the agent, who compliments her on her knowingness.(Delivered bursting with tenants.)

What’s the C. of O.?” asks his wife. “Class B roomer” is the reply. “Lowell didn’t know what they were talking about.” Lowell is well done for the novel’s purpose, but leaning toward familiar schlemielishness, a hick kind.

At the entrance door, the agent shouts, “Henry! Henry!” Henry opens a window. “Man can’t get no sleep,” he says. “You can sleep later, Henry. Mr. Grossman wants you to show these people the house now.”

Shee-it! You go tell Mr. Grossman he can goddamn well go and fuck his goddamn self. I ain’t no fucking horse. I got to sleep.”

Inside they visit unspeakable room after unspeakable room, from turret to cavernous cellar, the floor of which is inundated with a pool of liquid waste leaking from a cracked pipe. Everywhere they encounter rot, ordure, rags, ancient furnishings, broken furniture, torn curtains, ripped window shades, collapsed couches. Different nauseating smells assail them in different rooms.

The tenants are a Beggar’s Opera of restless and catatonic, blind and halt, young and old grotesques. Briskly the agent opens a door, without knocking, on a young couple making love. A large Puerto Rican family seated around a large table falls silent, spoons in mid-air while they are being inspected. Lowell, oppressed beyond endurance, declines to return with the agent to his office to “have a chat.” They must go back to their apartment. They must shower at once. Lowell must buy the nightmare domicile. He is a mystery to himself.

After one or two roomers are made to depart, the rest flee in a rout, taking with them every object they can lift. Lowell buys tools and embarks on his voyage toward a meaningful life. His power drill is stolen on his first working day. Betty and he labor at cleaning up the rooming house filth and demolishing landlord and tenant additions. He drinks more and more. Betty departs for Flatbush and her mother.

Lowell hires a builder, Cyril P. Busterboy, who laughs “melodiously” when Lowell shows him the “rotten main beam.”

Do you realize that this house used to belong to Darius Collingwood?” he asks Mr. Busterboy. “No shit,” the latter replies, and takes a nip from the half-pint of J&B in his back pocket.

Mr. Busterboy, a melodious laugher throughout the renovation, is a pleasant man, the only such in the novel. Davis’s comedy is exact and cruel. He sees with a Dickensian eye but never with a slant of vision rightward toward the grotesque-endearing, only leftward toward the grotesque-repellent.

A fellow renovator in a business suit stops by and casts an unfriendly dead look at Lowell’s efforts. He says nothing. He leaves. It’s a small episode, but peculiarly awful.

Lowell gets ever more drunk. He sleeps over one time, drunk and dreaming, and is wakened in the middle of the night. Terrified, he picks up a crowbar and smashes the intruder’s head, disposes of the body in Mr. Busterboy’s dumpster, and goes back to sleep. In the morning he discovers a drunken bum in the living room, who proceeds to defecate on the floor. It’s not, however, to his horrified disappointment, the midnight drunk. He has murdered a man.

He awaits the arrival of the police. They don’t come. They never come.

He’d become so many people,” Lowell reflects,

that he no longer knew who he was anymore…. Locked within the same imperfect and hungover envelope of flesh were a managing editor and a guilty murderer, a man who hadn’t gone home last night, a man whose marriage was on the rocks, a homeowner, a taxpayer, dupe, nice guy, and nonentity.

L.J. Davis isn’t a satirist. There are no Houyhnhnms in A Meaningful Life. Swift is savage, but the Houyhnhnms offer a standard that one may also call an ideal. Satire has to have such an ideal, without which it is something else. Davis’s novel is something else. It is a comic novel of existential loathing, written with a fine spontaneity that reflection and rewriting might have tempered—tempered the existential suggestion right out of it.

The story ends abruptly. The mansion is no longer Lowell’s. Mr. Busterboy’s renovation has turned it into Mr. Busterboy’s idea of a house. Lowell’s exertions to find meaning in a thing, object, possession haven’t saved him from the emptiness and tedium of the inconsequential. The inconsequential continually threatens to drown you, to own you, to preempt your attention, till, looking up, you find yourself at the end of the night.

When I was a child living on a sugar plantation in Cuba, hardly supervised, I joined a small group of Cuban children in the evenings to hunt for the very large fireflies called luciérnaga in Spanish, which we would capture and keep alive in glass jars, mesh net covering their necks to let in air. Then we would venture into utterly dark fields of sugar cane, or other black corners of the Cuban night, lighting our way with our living flashlights. I think of L.J. Davis as one of those firefly-filled jars, illuminating the dark side of middle-class, and more than middle-class, efforts to find a meaningful life in what is outside of us.

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