Good novels are often in the mind of the beholder. You might tell me that a science fiction novel is really good, but I might harbor prejudice against all science fiction. A few novels every year, however, transcend the fickleness of individual readers and the boundaries of genre fiction to achieve greatness. When the blessed occurrence arrives, it is often obvious from the opening page - no warm up necessary, no doubt during the first 50 pages about whether to continue reading.
Life Among Giants is one of those blessed occurrences.
Until now, Roorbach's nonfiction has outstripped his fiction in quantity and quality. He is the author of the previous novel The Smallest Color and the short story collection Big Bend. It seems quite likely, however, that in future decades he will be remembered for Life Among Giants.
The novel's narrator is David Hochmeyer, born in 1953. Everything in the book revolves around the murder of his parents in 1970, as they emerge mid-day from a fashionable restaurant in a tony Connecticut town. Out of nowhere, a gunman approaches the married couple and shoots them dead at close range. He would have shot David, too, but his gun contained no more bullets. David, a giant of a teenager almost seven feet tall and a star football quarterback at his high school, lunged at the gunman but could not bring him down. For decades, the murder remains unsolved while David and his older sister, Kate, a tennis player extraordinaire, wonder why anybody would kill their father and mother.
To appreciate the opening paragraph of the book out of context in a review like this, it is helpful to know that David pursues a successful professional football career after the homicides, then becomes a successful restaurateur.
Here is that paragraph: I have a thing about last meals. Not as in prisoners about to be executed - they know it's going to be their last. But as in just about everyone else, most all of us. Whatever's coming, there's going to be that last thing we eat. My folks, for example. They did pretty well in the last meal department, beautiful restaurant, family all around them, perfect sandwiches made by someone who truly cared about food. Lunch, as it happened. Their last meal, I mean. For my sister it was breakfast, but that was years later, and I'll get to all that. The point is, I like to eat every meal as if it were the last, as if I knew it were the last: savor every bite, be there with the food, make sure it's good, really worthy. And though it's an impossible proposition, I try to take life that way, too: every bite my last.
David is a nice guy, a thoughtful guy, an unpretentious guy who ends up larger than life not only because of his height but also because of his attachment to dancers. One of those dancers, perhaps old enough to be his mother, is named Sylphide, perhaps the most famous in the world. And she is married to a rock musician, also world famous. That glamorous couple happens to reside in a mansion near the more modest home where David grows up; David's sister becomes a nanny of sorts to the couple's disabled son. The other dancer who touches David's core is Emily, a fellow high school student about to achieve professional fame, thanks in part to Sylphide's tutelage.
Kate, David's sister, is no dancer, unless grace on the tennis court qualifies her. But her hold on David is even greater than that of the dancers. Brother and sister are bound together not only genetically but in less identifiable ways. Katy is highly emotional, for long stretches so mentally unstable that she requires institutionalization. David cannot easily live with her, and he certainly cannot live without her.
Roorbach's story lines do not observe strict chronology, thus requiring readers to exercise lots of attention to keep the flashbacks and flash forwards straight. The time shifting feels strategic, though, not haphazard, as Roorbach allows the murder mystery to play out but never to overwhelm what is foremost a revealing character study. It seems probable that most readers will identify closely with at least one of the dozen or so significant characters developed so fully by Roorbach.
Death runs through the novel - not only murders, but also suicides and those from apparently natural causes. Yes, some passages qualify as noir. Still, the combination of Roorbach's memorable characterizations and obvious lust for life leads readers to what might even be called a sort-of happy ending.