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A Meaningful Life

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  637 Ratings  ·  115 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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Apr 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
'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
Nov 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
I reread this book on a city break to NYC specifically because I was staying in a still gentrifying area of Brooklyn, and having remembered appreciating it the first time I read it a number of years ago. To be honest, I'd forgotten the blackly comedic aspect of the book - the narrative reminded me a lot of JG Farrell in 'Troubles' or 'Siege of Krishnapur', in the way that it was hard hitting at the same time as raising a chuckle at the antics of the protagonists.

A biting satire on the eventual g
Josh Friedlander
Aug 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nyrb
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
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Aug 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: quest, relationships
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
Aug 19, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016-reads
Like Jonathan Lethem in his introduction to this 1971 novel I was impressed by the great writing but made uncomfortable by how "un-PC" it was. This is a New York of another time, of course, and gentrification is a major theme of the novel. Davis's protagonist Lowell Lake says of the neighborhood where he chooses to buy a 22-room mansion in disrepair that:
The scene was so hyperbolically poverty-stricken that it didn't look real; it looked contrived, like a set for some kind of incredible squalid
Bree (AnotherLookBook)
Nov 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 06, 2013 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
Graham P
Dec 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
'A Meaningful Life' is a seething assault on what it means to live in New York City, how a life of little substance gets absorbed into the great melting-pot mass and slowly loses its shape, its purpose, its meaning. This is urban existentialism and dread narrated with acidic reflection, brimming with metaphors that are ugly, mean-spirited, but downright hilarious in how they skewer the ruined psyche of the main character, Lowell Lake. How Davis manages to be so bleak and so damn funny at the sam ...more
Feb 21, 2017 rated it liked it
An intriguing book that verges on the fantastical about a New York from another era. It lacked a certain something to put it over the edge, but it's still worth seeking out.
Jul 13, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: new-york-city
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
Jan 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
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
Oct 18, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Oct 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2009
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 13, 2013 rated it liked it
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.
Apr 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.

Oct 23, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: aмерика
on the one hand, this was funny at times. it was also weirdly zeitgeisty for a novel written in 71.

but ... this is the story of manhattan newspaperman who wakes up one morning and decides that, even though he has a nice place and a nice wife and a nice job ... he just isn't happy.

Feb 12, 2016 rated it liked it
I'll give you a hint: it's not that meaningful.
Apr 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
Davis's hilarious and horrifying ode to New York is a new shibboleth in my quest for a literary soul mate.
Trevor Ambrico
May 21, 2017 rated it liked it
This book feels like Vonnegut meets Kafka. Darkly humorous, yet lightly written; sometimes it made me laugh out loud, other times it offended me. Lowell Lake is our pathetic protagonist who has somewhat of a midlife crisis and realizes that his life has not become what he had expected in it. In his search for meaning he purchases an old crumbling mansion in a bad part of Brooklyn that is inhabited by squatters. His goal is to learn about the history of the place and restore it to his former glor ...more
Daniel Horner
Jul 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most fun books I've read in a long time. I had to remind myself several times that it was a satire, because the casual racism of some of the characters was accurate for the period in which it was set. But the book doesn't laud those characters. Really, there's not a single person in this book that's got an excess of good character, but that's almost what makes it fun. There's such amazing, bleak humor throughout this, and Davis' writing style makes it a breeze to read. It's no ...more
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
A lively urban farce in the vein of John Kennedy Toole and Charles Portis. A bit meandering, a bit ridiculous, but often absolutely hilarious.
Aug 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
This has been on my to-read list for ages, but this highly regarded novel left me cold.
Apr 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
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
Mar 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
"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
Lesley Horton
Mar 03, 2016 rated it liked it
It's difficult to articulate what I expected of this book. But I didn't get it. Not that that's a criticism of the book. More of a comment about how reading too many reviews before sitting down with a book can be unhelpful. Many reviewers describe this as a book about a renovation. It isn't. Some say, "everything that can go wrong, does". But it doesn't. This is a book about a man who lives a privileged life and doesn't recognise it as such. He had loving patents, a stable childhood, a good educ ...more
Jeff Buddle
Jun 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
"History repeats itself," wrote Marx, "first as tragedy, second as farce." This novel, in contrast, begins as farce and ends as tragedy.

Lowell Lake, an everyday schlub, failed novelist but mildly successful for god-knows-why, a man who has found his level, wakes up on the day of his 30th birthday to decide he's in a rut. Depressed, despondent, and unable to figure out a way to escape, Lowell at first stays the course; he just drinks more. His goal is to find a way to live a meaningful life, and
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NYRB Classics: A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis 1 9 Oct 28, 2013 12:35PM  
  • The Outward Room
  • Wish Her Safe at Home
  • After Claude
  • The Pilgrim Hawk
  • The Letter Killers Club
  • The Tenants of Moonbloom
  • Ride a Cockhorse
  • Victorine
  • A Way of Life, Like Any Other
  • The New York Stories
  • The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories
  • Mr. Fortune's Maggot; and, The Salutation
  • Irretrievable
  • Amsterdam Stories
  • The Widow
  • Fatale
  • My Fantoms
  • Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn
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 about L.J. Davis...

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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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