Last January and all throughout the start of this month, I spent a couple of calm-before-the-storm days with Lowell Lake, the martyr of his own hapless (even bewildered) making and the contra-hero of A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis. In neat encapsulation: “There was a sense of dwindling, like a slow leak in a balloon, as if all the vigor was slowly going out of their existence, all the light from the sky, all the color from the world, all the good thoughts from Lowell’s head.” And lest you think there’s something spectacular in this disintegration, Davis is quick to repeatedly disabuse you of that notion; for example: “His life wasn’t breaking up. On the contrary, it failed to show the smallest fissure in its bland and seamless surface.” [The voice in my head grimaces and goes: Now there’s actually something to envy you for—good on you, Lowell Lake.]
Now, lest we think that Lowell is the unfortunate victim of the people around him or of conspiring circumstances—not quite. Because dear Lowell seems to have a remarkable ability of bumbling into things—he made the disastrous move to New York because of a joke he found too awkward to take back—and to basically “damn himself out of his own mouth.” Indeedy, a lot of the following seems to happen to him:
It was the instant when his life had suddenly poised itself on an idle remark, and the hinge of fate had opened—a small moment, an utterly insignificant fragment of time that could have passed as swiftly as turning a page in a book, but instead it had changed his life forever.
It took a while (amazingly), but I couldn’t quite pull for Lowell Lake. Oh, yes, I pushed for the similarities because I often need comfort from pathetic fictional characters—and, occasionally, yes, our circumstances would converge on his pages (woe is me)—but Lowell Lake is just so pathetic. He’s this walking, proactive invitation for small but far-reaching disasters. And he knows this, mind you; then again, even if you catch Lowell looking in bewildered askance at his life, he never actually does something about it. Because he knows that he did this to himself—even the way the people around him treat him—and he’s simply resigned that there’s nothing he can do to fix shit.
A few miles away across the East River was the apartment he could never get used to, the job where he had nothing to do, the dozen or so people he knew slightly and cared about not at all: a fabric of existence as blank and seamless as the freshly plaster wall he passed. Soon his wife would return from New Jersey. Soon everyone would be back, and things would go on much as they had before. From the street outside came the sound of laughter and shouting, bottles breaking, voices droning in the warm air, and children playing far past their bedtime. It all meant nothing whatever to Lowell. Standing in the parlor of a house no longer his, listening to the voices of people whose lives were closed to him forever, contemplating a future much like his past, he realized that it was finally too late for him. Everything had gone wrong, and he had succeeded at nothing, and he was never going to have any kind of life at all.
What saves this book, however, from being a schadenfreude-y misery porn-pot of squick is the humor. God, Davis knows how to poke fun at his creations in a way that makes the reader think, “Hells, we’re all in this together,” and then, “Oh, sod it.” It’s so goddamned sad, but it’s so freaking funny at the same time. That’s what made Lowell’s plight so bearable. Davis is all dry wit, and damn do I love ‘em dry.
Lowell Lake, however, finds something—a greatly tangible something—that imbues his life, at long last, with much-needed purpose and direction: This crumbling behemoth of a mansion in a rundown area of Brooklyn. He sets out to renovate it, driven by god-knows-what. Thankfully for the narrative, his reaction to this welcome fissure is to cast an ambivalent eye toward everything else that’s wrong with his life—his marriage, his job, most of his goddamned life.
And you’re practically begging Davis to give the guy a break, because he deserves it. Let this house be Lowell Lake’s redemption, please; give the guy a reason to live beyond mere for-the-point-of-existence, please! [The voice, though, at the back of your head: “Ah, but darling, this is Lowell Lake—Lowell Lake, who tried to escape his marriage through a 200-mile car chase with his parents prior the wedding—Lowell Fucking Lake. Think this through, ducky.”] Still: Fun times, y’all.