If the Masters of the Obvious over at stuffwhitepeoplelike.com were actually on their game, they’d put “hand-wringing gentrification tales” way up on their list. A rapt crowd, 99.9% Caucasian, packed into Park Slope’s Community Bookstore for L.J. Davis’s March 31 reading from A Meaningful Life, his 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.
Introducing Davis was Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the preface for the novel’s early March re-release by New York Review of Books Classics. A Meaningful Life reads like the harsher, blunter prequel to Lethem’s own gentrification saga, the more nuanced though still pessimistic Fortress of Solitude (2003). Davis (like his protagonist Lowell Lake) is part of Lethem’s parents’ generation, the first wave of hopeful bohemian transplants to rough-edged areas like Clinton Hill (where A Meaningful Life is set) and Boerum Hill, where Davis has long lived. The latter is also where Lethem grew up, idolizing his neighbor for being the lone Brooklynite to write the truth about outer-borough race and class relations.
Lethem talked about how he would “hang onto” the coattails of the then-critic for the New York Times Review of Books, and try to bum advance copies of novels he wanted to read. “Not so fast!” curmudgeonly Davis used to say, but then he’d make young Lethem Eggs Benedict on mornings when the aspiring writer slept over, after late nights browsing his host’s extensive library. Finishing up his intro, Lethem claimed—with characteristic descriptive wit—that the dictionary entry for “mordant” should include a picture of Davis’s books, “or just Davis himself.” And truly, a better adjective for the elder novelist would be tough to find.
Davis, after warning the African-American–free audience about his book’s use of the word Negro, launched with gusto into its core act: Lake’s phantasmagoric tour of his soon-to-be-acquired property. It’s still functioning as a rooming house occupied by motley boarders when he goes to see it, guided by a Mephistopheles-like real estate agent who has “no smell.” What ensues is a lengthy, almost fetishistic recounting of the building’s bizarre decrepitude: the “walls…painted a dingy lavender with a shiny substance that appeared to be compounded equally of mucus and glue…then thickly sprayed with a mixture of soot and old cobwebs”; a “pink ceiling centered on a heroic central medallion of what appeared to be lettuce leaves in a nest of worms”; “tables made of some kind of synthetic material that was veined and painted to resemble wood,” and so forth. Through sheer accumulating weight, the endless descriptions win you over to Davis’s perspective, which seems to be that restoring a 19th-century mansion gone to seed is no walk in the park.
The evening concluded with a Q&A session, in which someone obligatorily queried Lethem as to whether Brooklyn’s edgy, novel-worthy days are long gone. He responded by warning against the assumption that gentrification has been triumphant. He told a story about a New York Times reporter who laughed at him as they toured Boerum Hill’s Smith Street, not believing that Lethem was ever afraid to walk down it. Lethem brought the reporter one block over, to Hoyt Street, and showed her what was clearly a “very functioning crack-house.”
“Some people have a pair of first-rate blinders on,” Lethem said, miming the accessory with his hands.
L.J. Davis and Jonathan Lethem will appear again together on April 14 at 7 p.m. at Book Court, 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, 718-875-3677, bookcourt.org