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Light on the Dark Side

A Meaningful Life

by L.J. Davis, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem
New York Review Books, 214 pp., $14.95 (paper)

One Manhattan mid-morning in the spring of 1967, I heard the crack of a gun going off below, along the broad reach of Central Park West. I jumped up from the table where I was working on my second novel and looked down five stories to the street, on the other side of which breathed the quiet greenery of Central Park. What I saw was a man lying in the middle of the street attempting to raise himself up from the waist, like a seal, collapsing, trying again, then falling flat.

At the same moment that I looked down I saw Billy the doorman glance up at me. We had both witnessed the murder.

Shortly after, two detectives arrived at the door of my apartment. Billy had reported to the police that there was another witness, me.

The detectives drove me to the local precinct on 102nd Street where I was questioned for nearly two hours by a third detective. In the course of the searching interrogation I was led to recall, bit by bit, watching the victim rise up and fall, seeing out of the corner of an eye a green sedan slowly driving by and from a backseat window an arm thrust out its hand holding a gun and firing a second time.

That evening when Martin, my husband, came home from teaching I reported what I had seen. “Oh God!” he said. “We’ll have to move out of here.” Later: “Maybe Brooklyn.”

I dreaded the long commute such a move would mean for my two sons and me. I had managed to get them full scholarships at the Ethical Culture’s school in Riverdale, Fieldston. I taught in Ethical’s elementary school located many blocks down Central Park West, at 63rd Street.

The neighborhood we were living in was a slum in the midst of which our apartment house thrust up high in the air like a great watchtower. In the late evenings, hanging out of the bedroom window, I liked to watch what was going on down below on 104th Street. I had once seen, less far down, an elderly woman being mugged on the gravel-strewn roof of a tenement across the way that a century ago had been someone’s mansion—a thin youth grabbed her purse, knocked her down, and departed in no great haste, in full view. Often I saw ambulances parking to pick up the wounded or the dead, the vehicles’ roofs emblazoned with a red cross. I listened fascinated to drunken conversations echoing upward. So much happened after dark that I began to see the street as a movie set, distance flattening horror as it usually does, turning the suffering of others into a troubling but nevertheless absorbing spectacle.

The Saturday after the shooting, I drove across the Brooklyn Bridge with my younger son. My other boy was visiting schoolmates and Martin was in bed with a virus. I think a friend had told me about Boerum Hill, a small neighborhood in South Brooklyn where, she had heard, there was a three-floor apartment for rent. Or had I seen an ad in a newspaper? What I’m still sure about is the rent: $325 a month, $40 less than we were paying for our apartment on Central Park West.

After several wrong turns, I found Dean Street. Brownstones lined both sides of the narrow street between Hoyt and Bond. A four-story brick hospital rose at the western corner like a bookend. The sidewalks were empty of people. We parked the car with ease; there were many free spaces in those long-ago days.

The sunlight was thin and weak, the air chilly. As I got out of the car, I heard the sound, oddly threatening, of an old window being raised. I looked up to see an old woman staring down at us from the third floor of a house. She slammed the window back down.

The street, the houses on it, had a convalescent, ambiguous look. It wasn’t a slum, though it was ragged. It wasn’t clearly working-class, it wasn’t middle-class (yet). It neither welcomed nor glowered with hostility.

But you saw the sky in a way you rarely saw it in Manhattan. As I looked up at it I realized, as I seldom did in Manhattan, that it was limitless, not a roof for a city, not a part of a stage decor, but the heavens.

We read the house numbers and found the one we wanted, on the north side of the street, close to Bond. The landlord, Ralph, lived in the neighboring house. We climbed up its stoop to the massive door and rang the bell.

A man with a worried expression appeared on the threshold.

You have a rental available?” I asked. He nodded, turned, and picked up a key from a small table

Next door. Up the stoop,” he said, in a flat voice. “The garden apartment is already rented.”

I stared at the dusty windows of the house we were going to inhabit for the next three years.

It looked unsheltered, open to weather, despite being squeezed between adjoining brownstone houses. I had a momentary delusion that it was standing by itself as if on a prairie. Ralph said he owned both houses as he was opening the large entrance door, with a squeak of hinges. I smelled dust. I felt the house’s emptiness.

You’re standing in the hallway,” Ralph said. “To your right is the living room with kitchen and dining space over there, in the back. The fireplace doesn’t work.”

The quite large living room was marked by pencil-like shadows cast by the ascending stairs. I noted a thin line of utilities in the rear, all small: sink, stove, refrigerator, two narrow counters. Together they spelled out in a kind of shorthand, kitchen. A door at the rear led to the backyard. As I opened it, Ralph said, admonishingly, “Those steps go down to the yard. You can’t use them without permission of the tenants below” (who proved to be a quite friendly couple).

We climbed the steps to the next floor. I saw a bathroom, its door open, looking like plain white underwear, slightly soiled. Next to it was a small room with a window giving onto the backyard. I stared into it and the yards of the next street, backed up against those of Dean Street. Dirty windows rebuffed the sun’s rays. I could see blurred shapes through some, bedsheets or ragged shades covered others.

On the top floor was another, smaller, bathroom and two rooms, one as large as the living room, the other small.

We returned to Ralph’s house where, in his small office, I signed a three-year lease and arranged to move in in two weeks’ time. Ralph looked a little less grim as he said, “The utilities are your responsibility, of course.”

The evening of the day we moved in, I made a quick supper. We sat at a table surrounded by stacked cartons that evoked in me a memory of Stonehenge, a cardboard one. The atmosphere at our table was a mix of hilarity and malaise. The neighborhood and the house felt alien. We had moved into a foreign city, a feeling shared by some of our friends in Manhattan in those years, and indeed still.

But I was not the first member of my family to live in the borough. My Spanish grandmother, born in Barcelona, married and after a few years widowed in Cuba, turned down her father’s offer to pay her passage back to Spain; instead she had sailed for Brooklyn with her five children at the end of the Spanish-American War, in 1898.

She told many stories about the farmhouse in Sterling Place where she and my mother and five uncles had first lived. The neighborhood had been semirural then—she saw tethered goats, chickens scrabbling in the earth of neighboring farms, heard cows mooing. Long ago Sterling Place became a black ghetto.

Gradually I remembered that I had disliked Brooklyn as a child; its shaking, rattling trolleys that seemed to be everywhere in the borough when I rode them to visit my grandmother’s friends; its different neighborhoods so dull and ugly, as shabby and discouraging as the suburban Queens we moved to later, as common as I was inclined to feel the whole world was. I was thinking about that as Martin and I and the boys ate our dessert of ice cream that first evening, among the packed boxes.

I still felt anxious about my children having to travel the far distance north to Riverdale by subway and bus. I was in a state of worrying indecision about my job at the Ethical Culture school in Manhattan. I had published one novel and begun a second. Time was my trouble. I stretched it, bent it, cursed and tricked it but it still maintained its tyranny. I only relaxed when I sank into bed at night in Boerum Hill.

But I discovered something in the passing weeks and months, the singularity, the charm of the borough: its tree-lined streets and gardens, its distinctive neighborhoods that sometimes changed by the block, and then changed in a different way when the old working-class or slum populations moved out and new ones (from all over the US and Europe too) moved in; young people, house-mad, scraping paint off marble fireplaces and mahogany bannisters, overjoyed to leave asphalt Manhattan behind for what was, most importantly for some, an investment, for some a true dwelling, as true as a dwelling can be in a country, in a world, that shifts and slides as if on sand.

Three years elapsed and we bought a twelve-foot-wide house in a nearby neighborhood west of Dean Street. Down its side streets you could glimpse the Upper Bay. I had finished my second novel and it was duly published. A movie actress bought it as a vehicle for herself—a small-budget film that Frank Gilroy wrote the script for and directed. That made possible our buying and renovating the Rumpelstiltskin house with its waste backyard that had once been a garden and would be so again.

The day before we moved out of Dean Street, I was at my desk in the room I used to write in. Suddenly the window shattered, there was a tremor in the air, a bee-like buzzing flying past my cheek. I shrank with fear. Then collecting myself, I peered out of the window into the backyards. A young man and woman, their hands raised in fright to their faces, were searching in my direction for the broken window. A gun was dangling from the girl’s right hand.

It turned out that the foolish young man had been teaching his foolish girlfriend how to fire a gun. He had held it for her as she gripped the butt and was curling her finger around the trigger. It went off.

Fox_2-120309.jpg
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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