Monday, April 18, 2011

L. J. Davis, R. I. P. (relative peace, that is, with the occasional frustration and failure in order that caustic comedy may ensue)

{Photo by rocketlass.}

It was the odd parts of the obituaries that did it. Like this, from the New York Times:
L. J. Davis was known among friends and editors as affable and voluble, a man who arrived at every personal encounter equipped with a capacious store of unusual facts and anecdotes he was prepared to dispense at the slightest provocation.
There are more at the blog of the NYRB Classics, publishers of L. J. Davis's 1971 novel, A Meaningful Life, which, on the strength--and strangeness--of the obituaries, I picked up Thursday on my way home from work.

I laughed like a lunatic several times during the L ride home, drawing stares. The novel announces its tone flawlessly in its opening paragraph:
Lowell Lake was a tall man, rather thin, with thin sandy hair and a distant, preoccupied though amiable disposition, as though the world did not reach him as it reaches other men and all the voices around him were pleasant but very faint. His attention was liable to wander off at any time and he was always asking people to repeat things. He gave the impression that people bored him, though not in a bad way: actually, they seemed to lull him. He was frequently discovered half-asleep at his desk, gazing vacantly out the nearest window.
I read that, and I found myself thinking of another, very different New Yorker, Donald E. Westlake, and of a very non-New Yorker, Charles Portis, and the ensuing pages bore me out: Davis shared with those two writers an eye for--and appreciation of--human oddity, a love of distinct and inexplicable patterns of speech and thought, and a refusal to shy away from the darker, weaker, and less defensible parts of our shared humanity.

And, like those two men, he's funny. Extravagantly so at times, but also subtly. Here's a good test:
"Something's the matter with you this morning," said his wife as they sat down to their instant coffee and frozen coffee cake. They were not great breakfast people.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit how hard I laughed at that simple second sentence. Its six words carry so much . . . hands-up resignation in the face of the myriad pointless yet unavoidable decisions life forces upon us every goddam day that it achieves brilliance. I laughed again just now as I typed it; I'm looped on that sentence.

Rest assured, though: there is much more overt comedy as well. Take this scene, in the church the day before Lowell's wedding:
"I'm not sure," said Lowell's future mother-in-law, planting herself squarely in front of the altar and standing there as though waiting for the crucified Christ to make a move for his gun. "I don't think I like it, but I'm still thinking it over. Tell me what you think, I'm open for suggestions.

"We don't have to have it in church," said Lowell. "We could have it anywhere. We could have it in your church. . . . I mean . . . "

"When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it," she snapped, without taking her eyes off the altar. "You can just keep out of this. I wasn't talking about that, so shut up." Then she burst into tears.

"Excuse me," said Leo. "My wife is crying."

Lowell wasn't exactly sure what was going on, but his future mother-in-law was carrying on pretty loudly, and he looked hopelessly about the church, alternately hoping that no one would see him and that someone would come and help him.

"It's okay," said Leo to his wife, standing beside her with fumbling, incompetent gestures, patting her like a city boy trying to make friends with a cow. "Look, if it doesn't work out, she can divorce him in a couple of years, it's not like it's forever or anything. Who knows, maybe it will work out. Personally, I think it will work out."

Lowell's future mother-in-law made a kind of strangled noise and struck out at her husband. "All right," she said. "All right. After all, what do I know? Who am I, after all? Only a mother. Who listens to a mother? Just remember, my blood is on your hands."

Lowell couldn't tell whether this incredible threat was directed at himself, Leo, Christ, or some combination of the three of them, but evidently it meant that they were free to go. Moving as though balancing a plate on her head, his future mother-in-law turned and marched up the aisle without so much as a backward glance.

"I don't know if I told you," Leo remarked as they followed her out of the church, "but I'm a cutter."

Lowell wondered if it was an occupation or a pathology. Nothing could surprise him anymore, not even if Leo were suddenly to strip off his shirt in the middle of the quad to show him his collection of self-inflicted wounds.
In-law comedy is about as old as anything--I picture Adam and Eve each silently cringing as God wandered by in the altogether on one of his evening constitutionals through the Garden right in front of their spouse!--but Davis redeems it with the oddity of his imagery (the petted cow) and his impeccable timing. "I don't know if I told you," says Leo, just when Lowell (and we) have temporarily, and gratefully, let our defenses down.

Keep an eye on my Annex over the next few days for more bits from the novel. And if I've whetted your appetite, you should go read the piece on Davis that Evan Hughes published in the Awl today: along with an interesting account of Davis's career in general, he does a good job of addressing the sometimes uncomfortable racial angle that emerges when Lowell and his wife join the first wave of Brooklyn gentrifiers. Hughes argues that it's a reflection of the novel's close tracking of Lowell's point of view, and writes:
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.
Those sections are actually hard to read at times, but there's no denying that they're drawing on the same brutal, flat-footed honesty of perspective that also makes Lowell's misanthropic confusion and irritation with everyone so effective and lacerating--to say nothing of the unflinching intensity of Lowell's own self-loathing. Cruelty, comedy, discomfort, reminders of our failings--if you're a fan of Sam Lipsyte, Martin Amis, or Joe Matt, to take just three, I suspect this novel is for you.

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