The Most Flagrantly Tactless First-Rate Brooklyn Novelist

by Evan Hughes

You know when you’re in a panel discussion in New York and the topic turns to gentrification, and the audience gets very quiet while everyone prays there won’t be some guy who stands up and says something excruciating? L. J. Davis was that guy.

Davis, a writer whose career was long enough that a lot of people forgot who he was for stretches along the way, died last week at 70. He wrote four novels in the ’60s and ’70s and, over a longer span, produced a substantial body of cranky and annoyingly accurate journalism. (A Harper’s article that essentially called the 1987 market crash won him a National Magazine Award.)

In 1965, when he was 24, Davis made the questionable decision to buy a decaying old house in Brooklyn, on Dean Street in Boerum Hill. It was the era of white flight, and he was fleeing in the wrong direction. Then he did something even more reckless. He saw what was beginning to happen in brownstone Brooklyn and mined it for laughs.

His third novel, A Meaningful Life (1971), a pitch-black comedy and a small masterpiece, starts out moving along nicely in the vein of Davis’s previous book, Cowboys Don’t Cry , in which the immigrant parents of the bungling, boozing protagonist gave him the all-American name Clark Kent in 1937, the year before Superman appeared and prematurely ruined his life. A Meaningful Life likewise appears to be a good old Schlemiel Novel, a cousin to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Sam Lipsyte’s anything.

Early on, Lowell Lake, our hero pathetico, sets out to write a novel on a nocturnal schedule while living on the Upper West Side with his unpleasant wife. While she brings in an income and berates him, he becomes so unmanned and sickly that the newsstand guy wonders aloud if he has the strength to carry home the Sunday Times. Soon Lowell gives up the novel, citing its “overwhelming livid awfulness,” and gets a job at a plumbing-trade weekly (not one of the better ones). At this point he surveys his prospects:

It was surprisingly easy for him to imagine what the rest of life held in store for him, short of Negro rebellion or atomic war. It did not hold much, and he would go through it sort of standing around mutely in tense attitudes reminiscent of Montgomery Clift, not particularly liking what was happening to him but totally unable to think of a single thing to do about it.

We’re in good hands here, we think. Things will go wrong for this guy, but not so wrong as all that, and we’ll be chuckling all along. This is incorrect.

Lowell decides to take a look at a massive 19th-century mansion that’s been turned into a rotting boardinghouse in a “slummed up” Brooklyn neighborhood (it’s Clinton Hill). He’s become inspired by a new trend: “Creative young people were buying houses in the Brooklyn slums, integrating all-Negro blocks, and coming firmly to grips with poverty and municipal corruption. It was the stuff of life. It was what he was looking for.” This is the first straightforward expression of enthusiasm in the book, which is to say it’s the first sign of trouble.

Built for one family, the house is teeming with poor people when Lowell buys it. The shady real estate agent has told him the place will be “delivered vacant,” as they say. But Lowell ends up faced with the task of forcing out the black and Hispanic people who preceded him so he can fix up the place, giving rise to a highly charged microcosm of the whole story of Brooklyn’s gentrification.

On the one hand, the narrative that follows is a very funny cascade of ill fortune, with a mix of outright pratfalls and perceptive dark humor. Lowell at one point takes a walk to visit a fellow white gentrifier he’s met and comes upon a block “so hyperbolically poverty-stricken that it didn’t look real; it looked contrived, like a set for some kind of incredibly squalid version of Porgy and Bess.” A local drunk threatens him as he approaches his destination. When Lowell is turned away by the white man’s suspicious wife, the drunk “commented on his adventure with a joyless but outrageously energetic parody of uncontrollable mirth, evidently having decided that this would get Lowell’s goat more effectively than his previous display of unbridled hostility. This insight was correct.”

On another occasion a nasty-looking old white woman appears across the fence from Lowell’s new backyard and interrogates him oddly, lamenting the course of the neighborhood and Lowell’s idiocy in moving there. As he tries to escape the conversation, a half-naked, toothless black man shouts at him from the other side of his yard. “The old man was much older than the old woman, and it was obvious that he was also much crazier… Lowell glanced around at the other yards that were visible from where he stood, half expecting to see more old people proliferating in various degrees of madness and nudity, like some kind of ghastly, pale fungus.” The whole episode depresses him, especially when the neighbors’ remarks begins to make a poignant kind of sense. What to do? Lowell “got moodily drunk in a very total way, and silently failed to arrive at any conclusion about what was wrong with him.”

Amidst the comedy, Davis produces the most lacerating portrait of the folly and shame that gentrification brings with it everywhere it goes. A Meaningful Life closely tracks Lowell’s point of view, and as he grows to resent the way his impoverished neighbors are making life difficult, at times it becomes hard to tell the book apart from a racist novel. I hate to say that, and yet I think Davis would cheerfully agree. Like a comic actor with the crucial willingness to make himself look ridiculous, Davis sacrifices our good opinion for the sake of the art. He makes you think hard about whether this L. J. Davis guy is a bigot, and that means thinking hard about what bigotry is. (Those tempted to judge Davis’s true attitudes may be surprised to learn that he adopted two black daughters to grow up alongside his white children.)

If you’ve ever felt uneasy about the fact that in your once-diverse neighborhood you are helping to make the streets safe for Corcoran and quinoa, Davis exploits that feeling to the extreme. If you’ve been priced out of that neighborhood and you’re bitter about it, the same goes for you. It’s all a bit cruel, really.

Like Davis’s other novels, A Meaningful Life got great reviews and generally failed to find an audience. In 2009, Jonathan Lethem, a friend of Davis’s son on Dean Street growing up, and Edwin Frank, the editor of New York Review Books Classics, rescued the book from the dustbin with a new edition, introduced by Lethem. The novel has since sold more copies than it did the first time around. Which may be because gentrification was a fringe story 40 years ago, when Davis foresaw the whole mess we were headed for. In the decades since, I’m not sure anyone has topped the crackpot insight that his incredible tactlessness brought to bear.

Evan Hughes’s book, Literary Brooklyn, a work of literary biography and urban history, will be published in August by Henry Holt. He’s on twitter.