An undercurrent of nervous energy, both kinetic and inert, fills the pages of Bill Roorbach’s inventive new novel, Life Among Giants. The literary vortex of a raging river, the language spins this story off in many whimsical eddies and makes it crackle with wit and ambition. At times this reader had to come up for air before diving back into this white water enterprise. And yet the narrator of the story’s events, six-foot eight football star, Lizard Hochmeyer, remains oddly static, frozen in time thanks to the untimely murder of his parents: a murder so vivid in his teenage memory that the common BLT of his lunchtime meal becomes elevated and cemented in his traumatized mind, crisp bacon, mayo and lettuce forever associated with death.
Growing up with a precocious and demanding sister, a tennis prodigy with a restless reservoir of ideas, Kate remains a lifelong albatross around his neck, as does Sylphide, neighbor and world-class dancer. A sporadic love interest in his life, their relationship never quite reaches the fulfillment of its promise, and because of this, and the baggage of family tragedy, Lizard never climbs the apex of his potential, but rather bobs and weaves through life like a fighter trying to go the distance, bloodied but in it for the long haul. And it turns out that he really is a lizard; a giant chameleon with the rare ability to slip in and out of his social environment at will.
The novel spans over a large period of time, the main thread being the mystery of his parent’s grisly murder. His father, a financial con man and unparalleled snake oil salesman of wealth, seeks the American dream in the worst possible way, just like every other ambitious man coming of age in the latter half of the twentieth century. Willy Loman-like, he gets entangled in a nefarious and secretive white-collar scheme, which is mostly left to the reader’s imagination. Turning states evidence saves whatever small scant of credibility he has left with his deflated family. Lizard’s mother, competitive and overarching in her own right, pushes her children to athletic achievement, success always the endgame. The novel becomes not only a murder mystery, which in my mind was the least effective aspect of this novel, but a testament to America’s enduring will to think big. The characters here fall short of the American dream on many different levels, but not by much, and not for the obvious reasons one might think.
Lizard Hochmeyer is an intriguing character and one who follows in the path of Augie March, the observant narrator of Saul Bellow’s prize-winning opus. Lizard is always seeing and describing, never quite reaching the mountaintop of his chosen profession. His accomplishments, impressive in their own right, seem more designed to facilitate readers into worlds unknown rather than to impress. Despite his many loves and lovers, he never quite realizes authentic love, but we still remain thrilled by his proxy affairs and his efforts to find love. His sub-par career as an NFL quarterback aside, his post-football life as chef and restaurateur is a testament to his limitations. Good, he is, admittedly, never great, apart from one high school game directly after his parents’ death. And yet who of us achieves greatness? Lizard is one of us in the end and we are him. He fails and fails big, and in the end he is not able to succeed in his greatest life cause; saving his beloved sister from the shackles of mental illness, though it is not for lack of effort.
The American dream, the novel’s most enduring theme, appears responsible for his parent’s demise as well as his own stunted growth. The investment in this vacant dream stalls Lizard emotionally and professionally, and subverts his relationships. Sylphide, neighbor, celebrity, and world-class manipulator of men, dashes cruelly in and out of his life, unobtainable as paramour and an aloof muse. Complicating matters is the fact that her husband’s death years ago (think Jim Morrison) is seen as highly suspicious and fraught. The rock star’s secret love affair with the teenager Kate, once a nanny to his disabled child, introduces more intrigue into the tale.
Roorbach has created a character for our times in Lizard, an articulate historian of the latter half of the twentieth century. The author’s use of language is both inventive and at times thrilling in its descriptions, specifically when it relates to the culinary. Descriptions of mushrooms abound, and I read and reread these sensuous passages with unmitigated joy, the taste and texture of a toxic mushroom sausage still vivid in my mind.
More than anything, and despite the significant time span involved in this novel, Roorbach’s writing is emboldened with a sense of flow and movement, skillfully transporting the reader through time and space. The author clearly loves his giant chameleon, and he proves to be a unique and yet understated literary reptile. And yet the downfall of the American dream rings loudly in this work: arms-length expectations, the seeming ease of class mobility and wealth accumulation. This book grabs the reader from the start with its tale of family tragedy and secrets held in abeyance. Assumptions become magnified and compounded, then buried for years before reemerging in monstrous forms. All the more reason this ambitious novel belongs in the loftier echelons of current American fiction.