An enchanting, darkly mysterious ballerina. A dead rock star. An unsolved double homicide, decades old. A father felled by a shadowy past. An older sister as beautiful as she is mad. A gay vegetarian chef covered in tattoos. His transvestite lover. Secret passageways, nighttime trysts, affairs, embezzling, illicit recordings — all of it revolving around one 6-foot-8, humble, sincere, Ivy League-educated orphaned professional football player. Really, what more could you want?
As you might guess from its title if not from the list above, Bill Roorbach’s second novel, “Life Among Giants,” is a larger-than-life production. Yet all of its wild characters feel genuine, their aches and flaws and desires wholly organic; and the plot they’re tangled in moves forward at a breakneck pace. It’s a dizzy romp. There’s murder and intrigue and sex and terror, and Roorbach is generous with it all.
The plot swirls around that mysterious double murder. As a high school student, David Hochmeyer — known as Lizard — witnesses the shooting of his parents. Until then his life has seemed normal, if blessed (Lizard is a star football player, recruited by Princeton), but of course things are not as they seem. Lizard’s older sister, Kate, already at Yale and shacked up with a handsome professor, is traumatized by the murder, and descends into mania and madness.
Across the street from the Hochmeyers’ modest home is the “High Side,” a palatial estate where the great ballerina Sylphide lived with her rock star husband, Dabney Stryker-Stewart, until his death. Nothing is unraveled without revealing another jumbled mystery, and Lizard discovers that the two households are more entwined than expected — and that their entanglement is both sexy and deadly. As I said, this is a romp.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t real meat here. Roorbach doesn’t let the novel’s rich entertainment stand in the way of emotional subtlety or homey, down-to-earth prose: “The dancer rose like heat from her chair, glided to me, extended long hands.” The teenage Lizard is a real boy, struggling with how to grow up amid great loss. He is, at times, a bit of a marionette — the women in the book hold the strings — but he’s no sap. He has integrity, but he’s also a lonesome young man looking for love and companionship, and we’re on his side throughout.
His sister’s madness, meanwhile, isn’t played for cheap drama or laughs. The entire novel seems to mourn the brilliant girl she could have been if she weren’t so (understandably) obsessed with her parents’ murder. That mystery remains unsolved for decades, and as we follow Lizard and Kate into adulthood, the old wiring of the trauma feels alive, electric and surprisingly dangerous. Roorbach seems to relish creating lushly bold biographies for his characters, then getting the shading right — carefully applying depth and warmth and pathos and strange tenderness. These characters are not regular people, but they never feel like caricatures.
Perhaps because the pages turn themselves so quickly, perhaps because the settings are so delicious (the dead rock star’s mansion is a palace of fantasy sex, a dream world of secret passages, false bottoms and hidden keys), perhaps because the emotional mystery of these characters’ minds begins to take precedence over the actual cold-case-file mystery, when the truth is revealed, it feels a bit irrelevant and forced. But maybe that’s for the best. The fun is in the mystery, not in the resolution — and luckily, here, the characters’ search for love and truth remains achingly unresolved.
Haley Tanner, author of the novel “Vaclav & Lena.”
The book comes back to Bill's studio finished.
Bill Roorbach's Life Among Giants is a novel of extravagant imagination about David "Lizard" Hochmeyer, a sweet high school quarterback from suburban Connecticut who loses his parents in a double murder and falls under the sway of the famous, preternaturally fey ballerina next door. As Lizard goes on to college and then the pros, he and his older sister, Kate, spend the first half of their adulthood struggling separately to solve the mystery of their parents' demise. Lizard relates their post-orphaning story in retrospect, and by letting the revelations unfold over the decades, Roorbach makes the novel a leisurely mystery as well as a bildungsgroman. It's also a playful anthropological portrait of American preoccupations in the late 20th century: country club aspirations, 9-to-5 chicanery, Ivy League bumptiousness, the use of touchy-feely psychology in pro sports, the deification of prima ballerinas and the sloppy hedonism, naïve philanthropy and louche moochiness funded by the bottomless suède pocketbooks of 1960s rock-and-roll stars.
"High Side," the mansion that looms on the other side of the pond at the bottom of the Hochmeyers' back yard, plays a pivotal role in Life Among Giants; it's home to English rock star Dabney Stryker-Stewart, his Norwegian ballerina-wife "Sylphide," and Linsey, his disabled son from a previous marriage. One of the novel's seductions is discovering the extent of the connections between the modest Hochmeyers and the bohemian goings-on at High Side, and Roorbach lavishes plenty of ink on its architectural particulars, including an adjacent folly burgeoning with bizarre plumbing.
Life Among Giants serves up other descriptive bounty, including details on football, ballet, esoteric foodiness, restaurant management, touch-based bodywork and classic sailboats. Roorbach keeps these details interesting and close to the story, skirting preciousness, and skillfully uses significant objects and nicknames as plot talismans. He also successfully creates a dozen unusual characters, from the slippery-yet-sturdy Sylphide down to the High Side's fleet of eccentric factotums. (And every one of his characters' names sticks effortlessly in the reader's memory--a rare treat.)
Similar to the work of John Fowles, Life Among Giants contains flashes of fantasy and obsession, though thankfully without the frustration of a pick-your-outcome finish. With Lizard, the story's path all the way down the field is in safe hands. --Holloway McCandless
Shelf Talker: An unusually imagined novel--half bildungsroman, half mystery--in which a sweet suburban quarterback falls under the sway of a preternaturally fey ballerina.
David and Kate Hochmeyer seem like golden siblings: tall and good-looking, athletic and academic stars, and bound for Ivy-league futures. Then their parents are murdered following their father’s involvement in shady business dealings, leaving the two orphaned, damaged, and forced to reckon with a mystery at the heart of their grief: Why were their parents killed? Though a loving family, the Hochmeyers harbored a nest of secrets, a chain of riddles involving a missing briefcase, stolen artwork, and the family’s neighbor, a famous and troubled ballerina. For David, a football player of imposing proportions, maturity brings a new question: how to rebuild a life crushed by grief, when “[g]uilt’s alchemy left me feeling nothing but fury."
Consistently surprising and truly entertaining, “Life Among Giants” ranges across a sprawling landscape, encompassing football, food, ballet, and crime. Its sibling protagonists are both somewhat coy in revealing themselves, whether to a reader or to each other, but each is ultimately worth the investment. While Roorbach writes stunningly about the varieties of lust and near-love that David feels for a parade of women, the book’s most enduring, aggravating love story is between brother and sister. Part thriller, part family drama, “Life Among Giants” is deliciously strange and deeply affecting. --Kate Tuttle
Bill hitting his stride at Fairfield University Bookstore, 11/15/12
David “Lizard” Hochmeyer is a former Miami Dolphins quarterback who’s now a successful chef. At almost 7 feet tall, he towers above most mortals, yet he is far from the only colossus in Bill Roorbach’s eventful, elegiac novel of sports and murder, food and finance.
Life Among Giants also introduces Lizard’s wild big sister, Kate, a tennis pro showered with endorsement deals for Victoria’s Secret and spermicidal jellies. Kate is married to her former Yale professor, author of a hippie pop-psych classic. Even Lizard’s first love, Emily, a half-black, half-Korean dancer, becomes a celebrity.
Dwarfing everyone is the couple who owned High Side, the mansion across the pond from Lizard’s childhood home in Connecticut: British rocker Dabney Stryker-Stewart, who becomes a still-greater legend after dying in a car wreck, and his ethereal widow, a famous ballerina named Sylphide.
It’s a seductive world whose beautiful, damaged women, easy grace and lights across the water evoke F. Scott Fitzgerald. No surprise, then, that these charmed lives are riven with violence and madness from the novel’s start.
In opens in 1970 when Lizard’s parents are gunned down outside a restaurant. Lizard is still in high school, and in the decades that follow he and Kate obsess over catching their parents’ killer.
The murder seems to have been connected to their father’s employer, the villainous Thierry Perdhomme, head of Dolus Financial. In 2009 the firm turned out not to be too big to fail, despite a federal infusion of $15 billion.
Back in 1970, however, Pa Hochmeyer struck a deal with the FBI to testify against Perdhomme in a vast embezzlement and extortion racket. A twinkly-eyed conman whose childhood nickname was “Sneaky,” he was in way over his head.
As the narrative flits between the months leading to the murder and the years that follow, its ever thickening plot is fueled by secrets. As a teen babysitter, Kate had been close -- perhaps too close -- to Dabney. Then, after Dabney’s death, it was Lizard’s turn to hang out at High Side, comforting grief- stricken Sylphide.
"Our secrets gave us power. And then they took our power away,” he notes.
Was Dabney’s death somehow connected to the Hochmeyers’? Could Sylphide have choreographed everything, as Kate insists? The novel opts for a slow reveal, allowing Roorbach to riff on football and love and, most lingeringly of all, meals -- the perfect BLT Lizard’s parents savored, some mushroom sausages that will determine the novel’s climax.
It’s not only the ghost of Gatsby that hovers over this personable tale. You’ll glimpse John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, among others. There are echoes of enchanted fairy stories -- in the title and in motifs like the talismanic stone, speckled and vaguely heart-shaped, that passes back and forth between Lizard and Sylphide for years.
Roorbach has written a novel with an acute sense of its own mythology. Lizard’s father, for instance, isn’t merely handsome; he is “handsome forever.” The prose seems to recall another America, brighter and more innocent, a country where celebrity still carried some mystique and the good life was epitomized by tennis club martinis and “steaks the size of tires.”
Lizard never quite loses his own shambling innocence. Even as an adult, landing a spot with the Dolphins then retiring to take up cooking and open a hip, super-successful restaurant back in Connecticut, he’s prone to the “whoas” that peppered his teenage observations of the world.
Ultimately, the biggest mystery our narrator faces is the man in the mirror. As he says of his ex-girlfriend Emily, “her life had gotten too big for her very quickly, and mine had always been too big for me.”
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.) "
Real Simple squib, as photographed by a friend.
At age 17, David "Lizard" Hochmeyer finds his world shattered when both his parents are mysteriously murdered. In the decades that follow, he and his sister devote themselves to piecing together the crime, even though it means ruining their lives in the process. Their fascinating journey highlights the importance of steering your own fate, and it left me wondering where my life will lead. --Angelica Martin, age 26, single, Los Angeles.
A controversial quarterback gets more ink than Tim Tebow in the latest novel from Roorbach (“Big Bend” and “Summers With Juliet”) — this one about the “giant” forces of celebrity, death and sports. At 17, 7-foot-tall David “Lizard” Hochmeyer has a football scholarship to Princeton and promising future when his parents are murdered in what looks like a mob hit. Lizard’s life then takes a turn that includes an affair with a famous ballerina who lives with a rock star, a stint as a celebrity chef, time as the QB for, not the Giants, but the Miami Dolphins — and the quest for revenge.
--Billy Heller's "Required Reading"
Bill at the book launch party at Emery Center black box theater, Farmington, ME.
The haunting story of David “Lizard” Hochmeyer in the novel Life Among Giants is strange — and an even more disturbing story peeks out through its pages.
Lizard, who is nearly 7 feet tall by the time he is a teenager, has grown up in a troubled family in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. His weak father has business problems; his beloved, chilly mother spends all her time playing tennis and drinking martinis; and his older sister, Kate, has demons of her own.
Across the pond from them, in a mansion that mirrors and magnifies the “nice stone house” of the Hochmeyers, lives another family. Dabney Stryker-Stewart is a British rock star, and his wife, Sylphide, an equally well-known ballerina. Dabney’s son, Linsey — child of an earlier relationship, the frequent baby-sitting charge of Kate and Lizard’s classmate — is “sweet as a puppy,” but “with a weird sense of humor and a sly smile, a secret nasty streak the rest of us delighted in.”
Norwegian Sylphide has renamed herself after the title character of her favorite ballet, which, one of Lizard’s girlfriends explains, is about a winged spirit who crosses over from the dream world to meet a sleeping young man.
“Late in the ballet,” she says, “our hero ends up in the dream world, the world of the sylph, not good.”
When Lizard is a teenager, his father is arrested for fraud. The family goes out for a last gourmet meal at the state’s expense, and, as they’re leaving the restaurant, both of his parents are gunned down by hit men.
Orphaned Lizard goes on to be recruited by the Princeton football team and then by the Miami Dolphins. After retirement, he opens a successful restaurant in Florida, and then another one back in his Connecticut hometown. All the while, the mysterious Sylphide flits in and out of his life.
This story of success sometimes frays at the edges, or grows transparent, and reveals another, darker story lurking behind it.
Author Bill Roorbach, a former professor of creative writing at Ohio State University, knows how — in the best way — to manipulate and misdirect a reader.
Besides being a compelling mystery, the kind to keep one reading well after bedtime, and a novel that almost insists on being immediately reread, Life Among Giants is a reminder of the ways we all shape our lives into stories, and the ways those stories, in turn, shape us.
"An exploration of lives touched by greatness and tragedy in equal measure, Roorbach’s latest novel traces towering Princeton graduate and NFL player–cum–restaurateur David “Lizard” Hochmeyer in his attempt to unravel the tangled conspiracy behind his parents’ murder in 1970. When his parents are killed in front of him at a restaurant, David believes the culprits are connected to his neighbor, the elegant ballerina Sylphide, whose rock star husband also died under mysterious circumstances, and with whom David has fallen heedlessly in love. As David trades a career in football for one in food, his sister, Kate, a tennis star with “tough girl” endorsements, slides into paranoia over their parents’ deaths. It is a soapy and thrilling indulgence, a tale of opulence, love triangles, and madness, set against a sumptuous landscape of lust and feasts, a sensory abundance that fails to mitigate the sorrows of David’s youth. This is a purely Gatsbyesque portrayal of celebrity; David and Sylphide inhabit a galaxy of stars, each more blinding and destructive than the next, drawing intrigue and violence into their orbits. Roorbach (Big Bend) has written a mystery free of contemporary cynicism and recalling the glitter and allure of a kind of stardom that has also, in its way, been collateral damage to a greedy financial machine."
David “Lizard” Hochmeyer is enormous, nearly seven feet tall, and so is the labyrinth of tragedy and
revenge he navigates in Roorbach’s novel. The high-school football star is headed to Princeton and then an
NFL career when his parents are murdered. Both his and his sister’s lives are irreparably shaken and
become significantly intertwined with the world-famous ballerina who lives nearby. Roorbach has created
a memorable narrator who possesses the disarming frankness of Holden Caulfield and whose rapid-fire
delivery and cutting characterizations expertly shift between memories and the present moment. Lizard
keeps this part-mystery, part-coming-of-age-tale humming, as the cavalcade of revelations rolls by,
prompting the reader to echo Lizard’s signature, “Whoa!” This is one of those novels you read because
you care about what happens to the people and the connections between them as those connections grow,
fray, and snap. By turns surreal and gritty, the book is written with the same muscular grace possessed by
the dancers and athletes who are its main characters.
— Bridget Thoreson, ALA Booklist