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A Meaningful Life

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3.58 of 5 stars 3.58  ·  rating details  ·  491 ratings  ·  88 reviews
L.J. Davis’s 1971 novel, A Meaningful Life, is a blistering black comedy about the American quest for redemption through real estate and a gritty picture of New York City in collapse. Just out of college, Lowell Lake, the Western-born hero of Davis’s novel, heads to New York, where he plans to make it big as a writer. Instead he finds a job as a technical editor, at which ...more
Paperback, 232 pages
Published July 21st 2009 by NYRB Classics (first published 1971)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,752)
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Drew
'What is the meaning of crime?
Is it criminals robbin' innocent mothafuckers every time?
Little shorties take walks to the schoolyard
Tryin' to solve the puzzles to why is life so hard
Then as soon as they reach the playground POW
Shots ring off and now one of 'em lay down
It's so hard to escape the gunfire
I wish I could rule it out like a umpire
But it's an everlasting game and it never cease to exist, only the players change.'

All I can say about this book is that it's dangerous. It hit me like a bot
...more
Kristen
Granted, I am biased here, because I live in Brooklyn, specifically one of those relatively newly-gentrified neighborhoods. So I came to this with something of a voyeuristic bent. And like any good New Yorker, I'm generally fascinated by real estate. So, a novel about a guy who moves to Brooklyn in the early 70s and renovates a crumbling mansion in a crime-infested area sounded appealing, for anthropological reasons if nothing else.
But then I realized, as I read, that this book is also dark, cyn
...more
Josh Friedlander
This book's reviews don't do it justice: it is a taut, brilliant, hands-down modern classic. It plays out against a background of gentrification in Brooklyn in the early 1970s, but more importantly, it's an existential yell, a pitch-perfect rendition of a young married professional for whom everything has come easily, whose life feels eerily empty.

Lowell Lake comes up from a small town in Idaho to study at Stanford, marry his college sweetheart and, reluctantly, move to New York and take a job a
...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
I always read the best books in the strangest of ways. I put this book on my request list at the library and it finally came in for me a few weeks back. I piddled around and didn’t get to it and when I tried to renew it, I saw that I couldn’t as it was on hold for someone else. All this for a library book that looked so new the spine wasn’t yet bent, but with a copyright date of 1971.

How could I resist trying to read it before I had to return it?

This book has my book friend KK’s name all over
...more
Pascale
This is exactly what I look to NYRB Classics for: a minor gem from a writer who failed to establish himself in spite of a varied and not undistinguished output. I found myself rooting for this guy stuck in a boring job who decides to reclaim his life by renovating a mansion in a dodgy Brooklyn neighborhood (we are in the late 1960s) while sharing his wife's aggravation with him. His futile battle is heart-rending and the book has just the right amount of high comedy.
Amy
Not long after Lowell Lake's 30th birthday he awakes in the wee hours of the morning in a panic over the realization that he has reached his peak in life. His job, his station - there's nothing more for him and he feels he has done all he can do. That evening, while preparing dinner with his wife, he remarks, "I know what my problem is. I'm not having a meaningful life. There you have it in a nutshell."

Lowell tries to add meaning to his seemingly meaningless life by spending his life's savings o
...more
Tara
This book just randomly jumped out at me when I was hustling through the shelves at the library. For some reason I stopped and pulled it out, and noticed there is an intro by Jonathon Lethem, one of whom's books I weirdly happened to be holding in my hands and was about to check out. It was synchronistic so I grabbed this book too.
What a great book! I am almost done and loving it. The main character is so passive, it is so annoying and frustrating to me, I want to jump into the pages and shake h
...more
J.
A short novel that feels endless at times, a what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong tale, the story of an epic fail, in the trenches of urban gentrification and renovation.

Author Davis seems to have a short-story that is perfect for a New Yorker humor column, maybe, that he has extrapolated into a full novel in length. At times it's a charmingly exasperating kind of strategy, able to include all kinds of asides and sidebars that stray from the action but enhance the story and characters. At other time
...more
Mark Sacha
Nov 08, 2013 Mark Sacha added it
Shelves: new-york-ny
Like its protagonist, the drab and listless Lowell Lake, A Meaningful Life is difficult to love, an unredemptive and mostly overlooked gentrification-cum-alienation tale in the vein of Nathanael West. Transplanted from school in California, Lake and his wife, natives of the Midwest and Brooklyn, respectively, land in New York in the midst of the Bad Old Days and commence a colorless but sheltered life on the Upper West Side. Brief flickers of ambition give way to the relative comfort of 9-5s, pe ...more
Jhoanna
You should definitely read this book, if only for the sole purpose of reassuring yourself that your life is definitely, enormously, ridiculously better than Lowell Lake's, whose charmed, though boring, youth (he unwittingly blackmails a local politician into paying for his Stanford education--he (the politician) thinks that Lowell knows about his secret gay dalliances at his (Lowell's) parents' motel, about which Lowell, of course, knows nothing) takes a decided turn when he marries the wrong gi ...more
Bree (AnotherLookBook)
Apr 04, 2014 Bree (AnotherLookBook) rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fans of old houses
A novel about a failed writer who wakes up one day and realizes his life has no meaning, so he goes in search of some. 1971.

Full review (and other recommendations!) at Another look book

Not the kind of book I usually read, but I enjoyed this one a lot. It reminded me in many ways of Wish Her Safe at Home, in that it takes a nice but sort of crazy/pitiful character and puts them in an old house, which then takes over their life. It's like a modernist approach to all those D.E. Stevenson-type books
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Eric
A bleak satire of the search for personal fulfillment through real estate. Written in 1971, it remains strikingly topical today, awash as we are in HGTV and the myriad other home improvement products. A listless man who married poorly and woke up one day to find his artistic dreams thwarted, he attempts to reassert himself through urban pioneering, but ultimately finds himself overcome by events beyond his control.

I can only give this book three stars because the middle of the book drags down wi
...more
rachel
Jul 20, 2014 rachel rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2009
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Tom
Very clever and fun. And the renovated house is on Washington Avenue in Fort Greene, I think, which is way cool.

I love the understated humor and I could really relate to the protagonist. All of the characters seemed extremely fresh (the book was published in 1971.) The wife's dialogue was especially brilliant, as were the parents from Boise.

The end was a little odd and didn't seem entirely in keeping with the rest of the novel. I will say no more.

Andrew
"No matter how many books he read, he simply wasn't up to the mark. This was not a new thing with him. He'd never been up to the mark. His model airplanes had seldom flown, often fell apart, frequently were never finished, and never looked much like airplanes, despite an attention to the instructions that bordered on fantastical. His dog had been run over before he finished building the doghouse, which persistently refused to come out right. He couldn't even catch a ball. Even when they came rig ...more
Helena
Davis's hilarious and horrifying ode to New York is a new shibboleth in my quest for a literary soul mate.
Jon
Jul 23, 2011 Jon added it
The late L. J. Davis is best known as a journalist but, early in his career, published four novels, all of which are very funny, utterly unsentimental depictions of New York in the 60s and early 70s, through the eyes of similar, nebbishy protagonists who, it seems safe to say, bore more than a passing resemblance to Davis. MEANINGFUL LIFE is probably his best and certainly his most autobiographical novel, about a young couple who move from the SF Bay Area to Manhattan, then to Brooklyn where the ...more
Frank
Even before I was 30 pages into this I absolutely loved this. It starts off as some of the best comic writing I know rightaway, and it doesn't sag. Tone and descriptions are more important than the storyline, and Davis sustains his (increasingly black) comic tone to the end.

The novel's starting point::

One morning not long after his thirtieth birthday, Lowell woke up with the sudden realization that his job was not temporary. It was as though a fiery angel had visited him in his sleep with a mess
...more
Keirstan
Every once and a while I stumble across a book that is so eerily relatable I can hardly put it down. L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life—a story of “redemption through real estate”—is one of those books. The theme of stagnation permeates throughout the story, warning its readers of the consequences of passivity.

Lowell Lake has just turned thirty and has come to the stark realization that he hasn’t done anything remarkable with his life. He recounts an aimless youth that yielded him a Stanford educat
...more
A
Apr 28, 2014 A rated it 1 of 5 stars
Shelves: read-2014
This book is a pathetic, pointless, racist pile of shit. It's one thing to paint a bleak, coal-black picture of the human condition and another to just rattle off 214pp full of deplorable, sad bigots who hate everyone and everything and know only how to be worthless and abject. What a waste of my time.

This book just reinforces my belief that, for all its lofty ambitions and charming cover designs, the New York Review of Books is a misguided enterprise. I know I must be forced now to give up my
...more
Benjamin Kahn
This was a very funny book. Many books purport to be humorous but then fail to deliver. This one does. The characters are engaging, and the situations, although exaggerated, are ones that we can relate to. The ending, although Davis still maintains a light touch, is a little bleak, however. Regardless, an enjoyable read.
Peter
The classic "3 1/2" stars, were there such an option. I laughed out out, literally, more than once, which is not something that happens when I'm reading. The tone is dark, and funny, and also very bleak. Even at is short length it almost went on too long, hurt by several scenes that could have been cut in half. It remains a worthwhile read, though, a caustic and cautionary look at "meaningful" lives, marriages, gentrification, and class.
Jaye
a look at a bland life that, once realized, becomes
disturbing.
brilliant writing. and very amusing if you can later get the
disgusting parts of humanity out of your head.
Michael

Another unconventional gem from NYRB Classics. The book is quite funny though he doesn't always hit the target and I found myself identifying quite a bit with with Lowell. Strange and surprising throughout. Good stuff.
Patrick
This short story hit me like a car impact.

Blistering comic observations, a perfectly crafted anti-hero... non-hero, living protagonist. Davis somehow managed to make me at times relate to every character in this tale, to see myself, and then a turn of the page later, despise them, and a sentence later laugh out loud at them, so much like life.

All in all this book felt to me like paint thinner, when it is poured on something sticky and covered in shit, how it just cuts through to the surface. Th
...more
Sarah
Thought about only giving it one star, but the writing was good enough to earn an extra star. That's about all I enjoyed of it, however.

The above was my most vivid impression upon finishing this book, but after more contemplation, I do see more what the author was trying to communicate. Now it gets a full two stars, rather than the begrudging two stars I previously gave, if that makes sense. I'd almost give it 2.5 stars. However, the two words that pop into my head when thinking of this book are
...more
shannon
Jonathan lethem's "Black Humorists" forward aside, you can not convince me the underlying theme was not to evince pity for the poor aimless white man. So. Very. Sorry. And hey, douchebags moving here from Idaho to ruin it all for the rest of us has been happening since before I was born (in Manhattan. So nyah.) maybe it's just my crabby mood, maybe it's having been priced out of the former slum, maybe it's the prescience, he's writing about but yeah, it doesn't read like satire to me.
Patricia
I loved this book. Its been a hundred years since I read "Catcher in the Rye" But this guy could be Holden or a relation. The book is bitter and funny.
Since I was raised in Idaho and spent 20 some years not far from Boise I totally understood the Boise references, attitude and need to depart.
I was a little disappointed by the ending but it seemed in keeping with Lowell's life.
Never heard of L.J. Davis until one morning I was reading the NY Times and an article on him and the book caught my eye.
...more
Maaike
This 1971 novel about a man who tries to make his life more meaningful by renovating a slummed-up Brooklyn house was reissued in 2009. It made me think of the Dutch author Voskuil and his Bureau-cycle: nagging wife, a job that is perceived as dull and meaningless (he is the managing editor of a 'second-rate plumbing-trade weekly') and understated humour. Must be even better for New-Yorkers: I'm afraid that as an outsider I missed some of the allusions and jokes. Still highly enjoyable, though.
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NYRB Classics: A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis 1 4 Oct 28, 2013 12:35PM  
  • The Outward Room
  • After Claude
  • Wish Her Safe at Home
  • Victorine
  • The New York Stories
  • Cassandra at the Wedding
  • Irretrievable
  • The Pilgrim Hawk
  • The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories
  • The Tenants of Moonbloom
  • A Way of Life, Like Any Other
  • The Letter Killers Club
  • Amsterdam Stories
  • The World as I Found It
  • Mr. Fortune's Maggot; and, The Salutation
  • The Widow
  • Great Granny Webster
  • Blood on the Forge
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Lawrence James Davis, better known as L. J. Davis, was an American writer, whose novels focussed on Brooklyn, New York.

Davis's novel, A Meaningful Life, described by the Village Voice as a "scathing 1971 satire about a reverse-pioneer from Idaho who tries to redeem his banal existence through the renovation of an old slummed-up Brooklyn town house", was reissued in 2009, with an introduction by Jo
...more
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“He was a nice guy. That was the sort of thing you said about somebody you had nothing against and nothing in common with; you called him a nice guy. That was what Lowell was, even to himself” 3 likes
“Fortunately he had nothing resembling a plan, so he didn't have to worry about things not working out according to it. He simply let them happen, unable to make up his mind whether he was losing his judgement or finally developing some perspective.” 2 likes
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