L.J. Davis, the first-wave brownstone Brooklyn gentrifier whose almost discomfitingly black-comic, slightly autobiographical novel 1971 A Meaningful Life was reissued by NYRB two years ago with the support of Jonathan Lethem (the childhood friend of Davis’s son), died last week at his Boerum Hill home; he was 70, and we’ll miss the funny, smarter-than-you way he wrote about money and urban life (including, once, for the L).
Davis was well-versed in Americana in that midcentury midwestern way, and wrote easily, and crankily, about technical issues; throughout the Reagan years, Davis reported on business and economic issues, among other things, for Harper’s, in his trademark tone of consummate, jaded knowledge and barely disguised impatience. His novels were, he thought, forgotten until two years ago; A Meaningful Life, it turns out, is a funny, savage novel about a milky-bland Boise-born, Stanford-educated urbanite (as Davis was) who, in the late 60s, buys a decrepit brownstone (as Davis did) and goes quite mad attempting to rescue it from urban ruin. In his intro to the reissue, Lethem recalls how Davis dubbed another of his son’s friend’s “Muggable Tim.”
As A Meaningful Life was being reissued, in the midst of the recession, we asked Davis to reflect on the boom-and-bust cycles of Brooklyn real estate for this magazine; he turned in a snappy-bordering-on-crass account of his adventures in brownstoning, which doubled as a compact history of the frequent insanities of real estate in this boro.
I emailed L.J. Davis shortly after the issue was put to bed, and mentioned a late change we’d made to the piece; he replied that that was fine, “idiot editors have been monkeying with my copy for decades.” I replied that sensitive writers had been complaining to me about edits for not quite so long, but give it time, which he seemed to appreciate (he advised me to invest in corporate bonds).