During my working days, I regularly flew business or first class, so finding myself in today's economy class on an eleven hour flight with screaming babies, half dressed people, and four rest rooms for the entire economy class, came as a shock and gave new meaning to the word squalor. Diapers were being changed on nearby seats with all the attendant odors helping to create an excruciating environment. Towards the end of the flight some lavatories were unusable as whatever didn't fit into the toilet wound up on the floor. The food was indecipherable at times. I recognized my pasta "dinner," but the "snack" before landing was some sort of a gooey bread, with a kind of cheese and onions baked on top served without utensils. Who cares, wipe your hands on your seat, if you can find a spot as it must be the smallest seat and space of any airline's economy class . I've had flights on commuter airlines with more space. No seating etiquette as well, as the person in front of me took it upon himself to recline all the way, leaving the tray nearly in my chin.
Fortunately, I packed my noise cancelling headphones with my iTouch and listened to music the entire flight as I read a recently reissued novel, A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis originally published in 1971. This is a forgotten classic, the kind I used to seek when I was in the reprint business, my major find having been Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Kudos to the New York Review of Books for discovering this one.
Two years ago I reviewed Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth and I have to wonder whether Savage had read Davis' A Meaningful Life. The two protagonists seem to be the same person confronting the dilemma of "a meaningless life." At the time, I said Savage portrays an inexorable path for our protagonist, a fascinating, tragicomic portrait of isolation and personal failure, in the tradition of Gogol and Kafka." Davis did the same for his protagonist, Lowell Lake, more than thirty years earlier. A Meaningful Life is written in the finest tradition of the black comedy and I think if Woody Allen and Franz Kafka teamed up, this could have been their collaboration.
The novel is set in my familiar 1960's, the same decade I married my first wife while we were still in college and lived in Brooklyn. Hopefully, that is the only similarity between Mr. Lake and myself. Lowell drifts into marriage in college, gives up his scholarship to graduate school, mostly to show his new wife that he is in charge of their lives and to prove it further, decides to move from California to New York City, where he will write a novel and she will work, over her objections (knowing Lowell to be unrealistic). His wife's mother also objects to Lowell right at the start (he's not Jewish; her daughter is). Her father simply entreats Lowell to call him Leo and that is about the extent of their relationship. Early in the novel Lowell fantasizes his future life as being a subject for the law and at the end this fear rears its head again. Davis' description of Lowell's wedding pretty much sets the timbre of the writing:
"The moment Lowell took his place at the altar, a fog of terror blew into his mind and few things sufficiently penetrate its veil to be remembered with any clarity afterward. He hadn't been nervous that his voice would break or that he would fart loudly -- but he was scared now, and scared he remained. He was changing his status in the community of man. He was in the hopper of a great machine and he could no more get them to turn it off than a confessed and proven murderer could change his mind about his trail...The law had him and there was no way out, or least not a nice or easy one: it was a matter for judges and courts, his wife testifying about the length of his prick and the dirty things he whispered in her ear when he was drunk ...the judge scolding him, alimony; he could see it all. The other way out was murder or moving secretly to another town, changing your name, losing all your friends, denying all your accomplishments, a kind of suicide....He was going to be a grown up now, and there was no stopping it."
On their drive to New York, he makes a wrong turn and winds up in Brooklyn, foreshadowing Lowell's eventual involvement in the borough. But before that denouement they endure nine years of "marriage," Lowell at first "working" on his novel, which turns mostly to gibberish and both Lowell and his wife retreat to drinking when his wife daily returns from work. Their days are filled with the details of living, more like surviving, watching sitcoms, drinking, while Lowell slides down the vortex of a meaningless life, without any purpose. Why even dress?
"At the end of six months his wife systematically began to throw away his clothes. True, his clothes were showing a few signs of wear; Lowell had never been particularly interested in clothing, bought it as seldom as possible, and wore it as long as he could, often developing a stubborn affection for certain items. It was also true that his underwear was a disgrace, his Jockey shorts hanging in soft tatters and his undershirts so full of holes that wearing them was nothing but a formality; on the other hand, it was kind of startling to go to the suitcase that served him in lieu of a bureau and find that his possessions had been weeded again, the supply growing shorter and shorter as the days wore on, the time fast approaching when he would go to his suitcase and it would be empty. Worse than that, it was kind of sinister to have laid out your shirt and pants before going to bed and then wake up to find one or the other of them gone, the contents of its pockets heaped up on the table beside the typewriter. He always intended to buy replacements, but he never got around to it, and meanwhile no amount of grumbling would make his wife stop. She had a case and he didn't, and that was that; his clothes were really wearing out-perhaps not quite as fast as they were being thrown out, but that was purely conjectural and largely in the eye of the beholder, especially when it came to arguing about it-and he really did forget to buy new ones, so when you came right down to it, he had no one to blame for his impending nudity but himself. If a kinder fate had not intervened, it was altogether possible that Lowell would soon have been totally naked, hovering thin and birdlike and obsessed above the typewriter like some kind of crackpot anchorite. Although this state of affairs would have precluded ever leaving the apartment again, at least alive, that would have been all right too."
Reaching the bottom, he symbolically fears he does not even exist. His wife was to blame once again in his mind, a mind now totally disheveled and lack of purpose:
"One day, in going over his papers, he discovered that his wife had thrown out his birth certificate. There was no proof that she had done so, but the damn thing was gone, and he knew instinctively what had happened to it. It was a blue piece of crackly paper with all of Lowell's statistics arranged in graceful script above a gold medallion and the signatures of the delivering physician, the resident, and the director of the hospital, just like a diploma. It not only proved that he had been born, but the fact that he possessed it proved that he was a grown-up....He rifled the shoebox where these things were kept, he scoured the room, searched the wastebasket and then the garbage cans outside, but it was nowhere to be found. His wife had thrown it away, just as she occasionally threw away scraps of paper on which he'd scribbled some important thought. It was gone."
Finally, Lowell admits to himself that his "novel" is nothing but a means of passing time with booze. Through the shadowy connection of an "Uncle Lester" -- his wife's uncle -- he gets a job as a copywriter for a plumbing trade journal, neither knowing anything about plumbing, nor having any interest in the subject. He took the job with the understanding (his, not his employer's) that it would only be temporary (sort of like his life itself). As soon as he got the job, "his wife settled down almost as if a wand had been waved over her, bought a black garter belt, and never chewed gum again."
But after nine years of marriage (Davis describes their marriage as a cross between Long Day's Journey Into the Night and Father Knows Best), his life amounted to "an endless chain of days, a rosary of months, each as smooth and round as the one before, flowing evenly through his mind. You could count on the fingers of one hand the events and pauses of all that time: two promotions; two changes of apartment (each time nearer the river); a trip to Maine, where he realized that his wife's legs had gotten kind of fat-five memories in nine years, each no more than a shallow design scratched on a featureless bead. It was life turned inside out; somewhere the world's work was being done and men were laboring in the vineyards of the Lord, Khrushchev was being faced down on the high seas, and Negroes were being blown up and going to jail, but all Lowell did was change his apartment twice, tell his wife to put on some pants, and get promoted faster than anybody else on the paper -- a tiny, dim meteor in an empty matchbox."
But at this time Lowell discovers the biography of Darius Collingwood, a tycoon and ruthless raconteur of the 19th century, a person as opposite of the passive Lowell as one can be. He becomes mesmerized by his life, especially by the discovery that Collingwood had built a mansion in Brooklyn, one that was for sale in the Fort Green/Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which in the 1960's looked more like Berlin at the end of WWII. Vagrants, bums, and all sorts of unsavory figures occupied empty disintegrating buildings. Lowell becomes fixated on buying the old Colingwood mansion and renovating it, not knowing anything about real estate, carpentry, plumbing, electrical repairs and with some savings he had secretly put aside from his "work" he plunges into a nightmarish version of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
The real estate closing with a "Mr. Grossman," the seller, reveals his ignorance:
"[He never did]... get to see Mr. Grossman, who was represented at the closing by a lawyer of such intimidating respectability that he made Lowell feel like some kind of meek crook whenever he spoke to him. Sometimes Lowell wondered if Mr. Grossman existed at all, if he wasn't the creation of real-estate interests, doing voice imitations over the phone in order to collect rents and fight off city agencies and sell houses to people like Lowell. Anything seemed possible, even probable. Sitting there in the lawyer's office above Court Street with sleet rattling on the windows, money changing hands, and a great deal of incomprehensible but threatening nonsense going on all around him, he felt like a mental defective on trial for rape and witchcraft: he couldn't understand a word of it, but he had the distinct feeling that it would not end well. Papers were produced and signed; Lowell wrote checks, and they were taken from him; men conferred in glum, hushed voices with their heads close together, continually referring to Lowell as 'him.'"
So, with the first found enthusiasm of his life, Lowell begins work on his crumbling edifice.. He evicts the squatters in the home. He buys tools. He has them stolen. He buys books about renovation and understands little. He seeks out a neighbor who had renovated a similar property (unsuccessfully) for suggestions. He is demonically watched by the so called residents in those slums. His wife helps for a while, but then goes to her mother's, but returns to their apartment where she lives a chaotic life. He finally gets to the point that he has to hire a contractor but only two show up to quote, the first of whom just walks out and the second, a Trinidadian by the name of Cyril P. Busterboy who agrees to take on the job with his crew. Lowell calls him Mr. Busterboy. Mr. Busterboy calls him Mr. Lake. Gradually Lake hangs around Busterboy and his crew, buying them beers and most of the work stops as they all get drunk during the day. Lowell is so drunk one night he sleeps in the remains of the building's master bedroom, on a tarp on the floor, hears a noise downstairs and confronts a shadowy figure. Lowell, with a crowbar in hand, and still in a drunken stupor, successfully bashes the intruder's head in like a crushed watermelon. He deposits the body in the dumpster and throws other trash over the body, leaving blood all over the room. The dumpster is picked up in the morning, Lowell convinced the police will come, but no one misses the intruder whose life was obviously as meaningful as Lowell's. Mr. Busterboy tells him not to worry, that his men will clean up the blood. This is covered over with sterile new plaster. He loses the house, but does not care, "contemplating a future much like his past, he realized that it was finally too late for him."
Although a literary work, it is more a profoundly disturbing philosophical piece. How does one define a "meaningful life?" Lowell is a caricature in the extreme, simply being swept along by forces over which he has little control and when he does participate in the decision making, he inevitably makes the wrong ones, not realizing consequences. He simply has no interests, and therefore no real friends. Time erases all, but Davis' novel is a reminder to find one's passion -- and for most people that means meaningful work, or an avocation, something Lowell miserably fails at. Depressing? Yes, but Davis sees it as the modern dilemma.
More on Sicily later. But, as a preview, a panoramic view of Castellammare del Golfo, outside of Palermo, the birthplace of our friend, Maria. There fishermen gather to pursue their livelihoods as they have done for centuries, work and camaraderie providing a meaningful life.