Larger-than-life mystery of love and murder
By Ron Charles,
Bill Roorbach’s new novel, “Life Among Giants,” is a bighearted, big-boned story about a young man’s entanglement with celebrities. Without a hint of satire, it offers a savvy reflection on America’s conflicted relationship to fame: beguiled one minute, horrified the next; desperate to touch the Beautiful People, but just as eager to rebuke them. The novel’s 6-foot-8 narrator, David Hochmeyer, reminds me of that star-struck neighbor who once fell under Gatsby’s spell and felt “simultaneously enchanted and repelled.”
In fact, the opening pages of “Life Among Giants” make a nod to Fitzgerald’s classic: Across the water from David’s modest home sits “a mansion the size of an embassy” that draws everyone’s attention and sparks fantasies of impossible romance. Full of vast ballrooms, secret passages and luxurious bedrooms, it’s like something Steven Millhauser might have designed for Paris Hilton. The woman who lives there — Sylphide — is “the greatest ballerina in the history of the world,” and she twirls through David’s life for 40 years.
True to his title, Roorbach has created a story populated with giants. Superlatives grow so thick in these pages that there’s barely room for an ordinary person to turn around. In addition to the world-famous Sylphide, there’s her husband, a Bono-like rock star whose melodies and images have seeped into our cultural DNA. Billionaires, best-selling authors, world-ranked tennis players, Super Bowl veterans, epoch-making choreographers and trend-setting foodies thunder through these pages.
But not everyone can gain admittance to this Olympian realm, and that frustration is what kicks off “Life Among Giants.” David’s glad-handing father is a struggling financier in Westport, Conn., “always finding ways to make himself taller,” always just one shady deal away from the good life. For this intoxicated dreamer, the mansion across the pond is a flame he can’t resist. Depressed and desperate beneath a shiny veneer of overconfidence, David’s father falls in with some very tough men, and in the early pages of the novel, they murder him in a fancy restaurant. That bloody assassination leaves a mysterious connection to Sylphide that will mystify David for decades to come.
“Life Among Giants” reads like something written by a kinder, gentler John Irving. There’s no bear, but David is a familiar Irving character: the extraordinary but modest young man, fatherless, involved with an older woman, drifting through the lives of strange people, pining for love, tender toward sexual outliers. There’s even the requisite paternal mystery that simmers a little too long.
Roorbach takes his time, following his endearing narrator from high school to middle age, repeatedly folding his story back on itself like an origami master. That opening hail of bullets is still ringing in our ears when David returns to the months leading up to his father’s murder. We watch his sister babysitting for the famous rocker and his ballerina wife. David nervously falls in love with Sylphide, while his father tries to ingratiate himself with the famous couple across the water.
Roorbach spends the novel hopscotching between plausible and implausible. Periodically, a weird dreamlike quality wafts over these scenes, a reminder of the reality-distortion field that world-famous people exercise over everyonearound them.
It’s all endlessly entertaining, but endless, nonetheless. Originally, “Life Among Giants” was even longer, at 600 pages, but an editor prevailed on Roorbach to cut it down, and he should have kept prevailing. The tendency to cycle back on events already described taxes the novel’s pacing. Other sections of the book churn when they should drill down. While his increasingly unbalanced sister obsesses over their father’s death, David goes on to Princeton, where he’s a football star, which leads to a position on the Miami Dolphins, but the Ivy League campus never really materializes, and we get little visceral sense of the crunch and crash of a professional athlete’s life. This is big-time sports labeled, but not experienced. His affair with a masseuse therapist seems equally contrived (hours-long lovemaking sessions — sure). And the whole time, arcane clues to his father’s murder are polished over and over like coins that begin to lose their inscriptions.
When the story gets around to food, though, the plot grows tangible and pungent again. In the final sections, David opens a restaurant in his old home town. He’s borne back ceaselessly into the past, toward a solution to the crime that destroyed his family and toward the ballerina who dared to choreograph his life for “a dance too big for the stage.” After years of deception, subterfuge and outsize personalities, he’s a man who delights in the aroma and texture of real ingredients. “I lingered over the cooking,” he tells us, “rubbed out some sage leaves, rolled a little fresh thyme, taking too much of the other kind of time, two trips to the garden, inefficient pleasure, dry-panning the herbs with just a little more Thai fire-pepper than I thought I should.” (Roorbach recently served as a judge on Food Network’s “All Star Challenge”; what he knows about mushrooms alone could charm a gourmand — or take down an enemy. )
Asked once what he’d most like to change about the publishing industry, Roorbach wished for “many, many, many fewer books published.” That’s the kind of wisdom that can bring me to tears, but publishing infrequently doesn’t help an author’s marketability. Almost 60, Roorbach is one of those fine writers whose career is always just about ready to break out. While teaching at various colleges, he’s published several nonfiction books and placed nature essays and short stories in all the right places — Harper’s, the Atlantic, Granta — but his only previous novel appeared way back in 2001. Consequently, “Life Among Giants” strides out into a reading public largely unfamiliar with his name.
But I hope this delightful if frustrating novel finds an audience. Roorbach is a humane and entertaining storyteller with a smooth, graceful style. Yes, he could rein in his rambling nature, but some readers will relish the ruminative nature of this mystery about love and murder among people bigger than life.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. Follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
LIFE AMONG GIANTS By Bill Roorbach Algonquin. 331 pp. $24.95