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Book Review: Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach

By Edited May 10, 2014 0 0

No one would have expected Nick and Barb Hochmeyer's two kids would grow up to be anyone unusual. Outwardly, they looked like just one more pair of baby-boomer siblings coming out of a Connecticut bedroom community, on track for ordinary lives in the financial district and at the local grade school. That was before life dealt a different hand.

Presented for your consideration: David "Lizard" Hochmeyer, retired Miami Dolphins backup quarterback who's segued to a career as owner of a wildly successful bistro in his home town. On the other hand is his sister Kate: once the world's eighteenth-ranked women's tennis player, these days a bipolar disaster. Ever since English rockstar Dabney Stryker-Stewart took up residence with his world-class ballerina wife, Sylphide, in the mansion across the lake from the Hochmeyers, the family's lives were changed. No longer leading a humdrum existence, they instead took on a Life Among Giants.

Maybe the change didn't start the day rocker and dancer moved in: perhaps it began the night Dabney's Mustang slammed into a bridge abutment. Or perhaps it started when the police hauled Nick Hochmeyer away in handcuffs, suspected of white-collar crime. It had certainly begun by the day that both parents were gunned down before David's eyes. Yes, by then the changes had begun.

Orphaned a single minute at just seventeen, Lizard survived by sticking to his father's plan for his life: he finished high school, won a football scholarship to Princeton (Kate was already on the varsity tennis team at Yale), and was drafted by the Dolphins in the seventh round. Even though perennially named one of Miami's most eligible bachelors, Lizard never truly connected with anyone - most likely because he would always be in love with Sylphide.

For four decades David Hochmeyer carried, burned onto his retinas, the sight of the man who shot his parents and then calmly walked away. His only clue, ignored by investigators, was that his father had shouted "Kaiser!" when the killer came into view. While the image never left him, it was Kate who became obsessed. Her obsession reached farther back in time, however, to the night of Dabney's death. Was there some hidden connection between those two awful events? or did the sole link exist in her feverish imagination? Would David ever make all those connections he so desperately needed? Life, you will learn, is different among the giants...

Bill Roorbach's tale of the life and times of Lizard Hochmeyer will not be easy to pigeonhole. While it's undeniably a mystery, it bears only the most distant resemblance to gritty police procedurals. It's clearly a coming-of-age tale, though David takes four decades to complete his transition to adulthood. The restaurant scenes add aspects of a kitchen cozy, David's relationship with Sylphide stirs in a little romance (at times pretty spicy), the narrative recounts a history of an uncommonly common family, and Roorbach tosses in an occasional glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous. Throughout the pages, Roorbach unashamedly drops the names of giants of David Hochmeyer's generation: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bob Griese, Don Shula...

In a final reckoning, however, assigning genre to Life Among Giants is essentially meaningless. What's more significant is Roorbach's ability to capture a reader's interest on page one and hold it to the end, through all the novel's flashbacks and twists. You found a passage on mycology? That works, because somehow you know mushrooms will be important. You're presented a depiction of a high school football game straight from a Chris Crutcher novel? It moves everything forward nicely. You learn about Lizard's first exposure to The Dance? Besides being simultaneously embarrassing and erotic, it reveals an essential part of the character's development.

Many have attempted to compare Life Among Giants to John Irving's early work, by which they apparently mean The World According to Garp (ignoring three earlier novels, Setting Free the Bears, The 158-pound Marriage and The Water-Method Man). In fact there are many aspects of Giants that do resemble Garp, such as many passages about sports (football instead of wrestling), a dysfunctional but loving family, tragedy marking a young man's life, and an uncomplicated acceptance of gay and cross-dressing characters. In reality, I suppose, there is resemblance between the novels, for both are sweeping memoirs of  life spent getting accustomed to a world that is perhaps a little too small.

Ultimately, much like Irving's Garp, Lizard Hochmeyer recounts his history unembellished, without omitting his little embarrassments and foolish missteps. His style is humorous in a quirky way, slyly romantic, and full of an unabashed love for friends and family. Life Among Giants may be sprinkled with name-dropping glamour, but Lizard Hochmeyer will draw his strength from the ordinary people who surround him. That's something folks who hunger to be the next reality TV star might do well to consider.


Life Among Giants, by Bill Roorbach
Credit: Bill Roorbach/Algonquin Press


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