What happens when a young boy from Connecticut becomes enamored with a world-famous ballerina who may – or may not – have a connection to multiple murders and the mob? Can the boy find the truth amid the raging hormones and the lust? Can the boy recover from the violence perpetrated on is family?
Those are the questions former writing professor Bill Roorbach seeks to answer in his novel, “Life Among Giants.”
When the book burst onto the publishing world in November, Roorbach admitted to being more than a little nervous. Even though the novel was selected as amazon.com’s book of the month in October, the author was anxious about its reception.
“I’m kinda scared, to tell the truth,” Roorbach said during an interview from his home in Maine. “I get quite excited and nervous.”
Roorbach’s rambling story swirls around young David “Lizard” Hochmeyer, a 6-foot-8-inch athlete, and although its many complicated plot lines seem daunting, the author is able to bring everything together at the end.
“The book has lots of layered elements in it,” Roorbach explained. “Lots of layered elements, and it covers a lot of ground – sports, ballet, restaurants, music – every aspect of my life and interests.”
Roorbach planned the book to be intricate.
“Structure is always an interesting problem when you’re covering so much time,” he noted. “One of my goals was to make it a whole life’s story, complicated and complex.”
The idea for the book came in the form of Sylphide, “the greatest ballerina in the world,” who lives with her rock star husband in a mansion across the lake from Lizard and his dysfunctional family.
“Sylphide came to mind years before I started the book,” Roorbach offered. “Later I wanted to put in place a Nick Carraway-type character [The Great Gatsby-1925] who finds himself getting tangled up in the lives of the people he is observing. Suddenly, I got it. This kid’s an athlete.”
Putting Lizard in the role of narrator was easy. Making a book out of it, Roorbach says, was not.
“Part of my goal was to make it seem easy,” he said with a laugh.
When it came to picking a publishing house, however, Roorbach had no problems. He chose Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
“My agent gave me a list of possible editors and I chose Kathy Pories,” he said. “I had a lot of other interest, but I really felt like Algonquin had a feel for the book and Kathy gave me the best ideas.”
The cover (at right) is a lovely drawing of a huge mushroom, which is perfectly chosen, given the book’s outcome.
“I think the book – the object – is so beautiful,” Roorbach said. “Everything is well done. That goes back all the way to the first contact [with Algonquin]. Everyone is involved. Everyone reads the book. You feel that you are in very good hands.”
Without giving anything away, Roorbach introduces the Hochmeyer family with the arrest of Lizard’s father, a shady investment banker from Connecticut with possible ties to the mob. He turns states’ evidence, and is released.
As the second chapter opens, the family gathers for a lavish luncheon, paid for by the district attorney. Just as the reader is lulled into the world of luxurious food, the unimaginable happens, impacting Lizard and his high-strung sister, Kate, for the rest of their lives.
The story follows Lizard through time as a successful college and professional quarterback, all the while trying to uncover the mystery that haunts him. He also enjoys a career as a restauranteur, but nothing seems to actually reach him.
Except, Sylphide, of course.
“Lizard was looking across the lake, stuck in the mud, longing for Sylphide,” Roorbach explained. “The pond is a [metaphor for the] real barrier between them.”
His sister, on the other hand, does not adjust well to the outside world. She marries her college professor and suffers from bouts of mental instability. She becomes obsessed with the mystery surrounding her parents and does her best to draw Lizard into the mix.
“She’s a very important part of the book,” Roorbach noted. “In some ways, she was the main character.”
Ultimately, Lizard does figure it all out and sets about to get revenge – in a most dramatic fashion.
The way Roorbach handles the relationship between Lizard and Sylphide is, at times, maddening. For 40 years, she is a dominant factor in his life.
As a teenager, his days are filled with fantasies of her. As a young adult, his encounters with her are at turns, innocent and, then, lustful.
They spend a brief interlude as lovers, disappearing into her late husband’s secluded lair for days, seeing only each other and the occasional servant.
As he matures, Lizard’s feelings morph into something deeper, resulting in a stunning, surprising partnership.
To Roorbach, getting Lizard’s complicated life on paper wasn’t difficult. The original manuscript came in at more than 600 pages.
“It was easy to write a lot of pages,” Roorbach confessed. “It was really hard to boil them down.”
Editor’s note: Brief, graphic violence and graphic sexual content.
For more on Bill Roorbach, visit www.billroorbach.com
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