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.)
To contact the writer on the story: Hephzibah Anderson in London at Hephzibah_anderson@hotmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.