Review: Life Among Giants

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 Rise," 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 Rise, 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 Rise'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.


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