Bill Roorbach’s John Irving-esque third novel, Life Among Giants, radiates its bemusement with the exquisitely peopled world of upper-middle-class America and the problems money can’t solve. Yet the high-school football star at its center, dwarfed by the characters in his own story, is too close to the action to enjoy the send-up, as a brutal crime marks him for life.
Life Among Giants threads its coming-of-age story through vignettes of curiosity and first love in the life of David “Lizard” Hochmeyer, only to stop it cold when, as a high-school senior, he sees his parents gunned down in front of him; Lizard himself is spared only because the killers ran out of bullets. Decades later, Lizard returns to town to open a restaurant with his earnings from six indifferent years in the NFL, and he dwells on whether his father’s shady business dealings or his later repentance earned the hit. But distracting him from his quest for answers is the fate of the Hochmeyers’ rich neighbors, the British rocker and ballerina who lived in a mansion known as the High Side, and whose turbulent times puzzled and captivated him when he was a teenager.
Smashing the immediacy of Lizard’s adolescent memories together with the sticky mass of the murders, Roorbach’s reveals throughout Life Among Giants pick up dizzying speed as Lizard begins his own admissions with the revelation that he alone saw the killers’ faces. Piecing together the connections between the High Side’s high society and the financiers who framed, then killed his father, Lizard keeps going over the facts of his adolescence, setting off new emotional landmines left by the secrets all the Hochmeyers kept from each other. The juxtaposition of Lizard’s initially all-American adolescence and the High Side’s glamour and darkness gradually allows both sides to bleed into each other, exposing their similarities.
Roorbach has dressed his characters’ Westport world with familiar WASP details suiting the trope of the culturally snobbish, financially precarious family, though these are emblems Lizard only recognizes when he’s older. Yet none of the people in Life Among Giants are immune to the lure of a different life. Lizard’s quest to understand his parents’ death carries a live captive along with its corpses—his sister Kate, who fell after their parents’ death from varsity tennis at Yale to suicide attempts and hospitalizations, even as Lizard strove harder to live up to his old football-hero persona. Roorbach giddily lets Lizard get tangled up in his retelling of the year surrounding that horrific incident, but steers him back home in the end.