‘Gravesend’ is a sad, downtrodden ballad to Brooklyn. No tongue-in-cheek subversive commentary about the new trendified and gentrified borough – that self-mocking shit can take a hike. This is hard life in earnest: stories of losers, chumps, and failures. The tales within come from a place where Hubert Selby and David Goodis inhabit – the no-exit school of storytelling – but Boyle makes the tragic template his own. ‘Gravesend’ is a deceptively simple novel that spits in your face, layers in a heartfelt desire of becoming somebody you’re not, whether abandoning your neighborhood in hopes of bigger and better things, or trying to make an old high school crush fall in love with you. But second chances don’t reach that far into the grid of Boyle’s Brooklyn, where certain corners, blocks and storefronts slightly change, but the characters stay the same – lives of stasis and carrying the same hand-me-down funk from one generation to the next.
And that in itself is what makes ‘Gravesend’ modern noir – the absence of full light, hope, chances of success. It’s noir wearing an oversized Yankees jersey, eating a $1 slice of corner-store pizza, one stop away from oblivion under the rusted rails of the El. And in the end, all it takes is one bad decision to lead to a lifetime of hurt.
A heartbreaking, top-shelf novel.
There is no other novel like it.
A Meaningful Life is a seething assault on what it means to live in New York City, how a life of little substance gets absorbed into the great melting-pot mass and slowly loses its shape, its purpose, its meaning. This is urban existentialism and dread narrated with acidic reflection, brimming with metaphors that are ugly, mean-spirited, but downright hilarious in how they skewer the ruined psyche of the main character, Lowell Lake. How Davis manages to be so bleak and so damn funny at the same time is truly a marvel. He peoples his world with characters who are all unlikable. They come in and out of the narrative like demented caricatures, indifferent losers, miserable blowhards. Nobody likes living in the city yet nobody can escape.
Read this as a parody lined with razor wire, a biting commentary on gentrification, or a scalding critique of the WASP mindset, but also read it for the playful cruelty that Davis indulges his descriptions with. On every page, he’s like a cat playing with a crippled mouse. There is so much to love about this grotesque little book. Parts Bruno Schulz and Hubert Selby, Joseph Heller and Gilbert Sorrentino, this book will change the way you look at real estate and home renovation, as well as marriage and family. A major book about a minor apocalypse, this one goes to my top shelf.
‘Not even the spectacle of his wife coming in the door at her usual time could rouse him from his torpor; his psyche was in limp tatters, like an old kleenex dredged up from the bottom of a purse.’
‘The little girl and an even smaller boy were seated rigidly side by side on an enormous, spavined, yellowish sofa that was much and questionably stained and which stank to high heaven with an odor that resembled a superhumanly protracted fart.’
‘He regarded the bag of shit that was about to fall on him with a kind of fatalism. He’d always known this was going to happen.’
‘The drunks next door never said a thing. Lowell had a bad moment the first time he had to pass them, but they just sat there and looked at him with a very total kind of indifference as if he were a traffic accident or a fly.’
This passage speaks to me, and it should speak to most writers.
‘When I awoke, I knew that this day was to be worse than the day that preceded it and that I could not hope to get down from where I was, until I was safely home with my books and my typewriter and all the crippled and ruined manuscripts lying about on the desk. I wanted to get back to the place where I had resisted so many things, and failed at so many things, back to the place where even when I succeeded I failed because it was never good enough.’
-Harry Crews, Climbing the Tower