Bill Roorbach: Life Among Giants (Algonquin, 2012)

Our secrets gave us power.
And then they took our power away.
From whom had we learned that?

I was destined to read this book.

I first became aware of it earlier this year, when Maine writer Bill Roorbach talked about it at the “FLOODED” benefit for our little Portland bookstore damaged by superstorm Sandy. At around the same time, Cliff Garstang (an acquaintance of mine from Zoetrope Virtual Studios of years past) chaired a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book that included this book; he was quite enthusiastic about it. But one thing led to another and I never got to it… you know how it goes. Then last month, David Abrams (of FOBBIT fame) announced this his weekly Friday Freebie; I entered the drawing, and won (thank you, David).

When a book comes at you from three very different directions – one of them plopping it, free of charge, in your hands – you begin to think there might be a reason. It wasn’t until I read the book, though, that I realized how foretold-in-the-stars this was for me.

All the conversation I’d imagined had simply disappeared. In its place, memory pressing on memory. My dad waiting at the bus stop with me. My mother’s face reacting to him, that cross face she’d make. She’d put a lot of pressure on the guy. That was something I hadn’t thought of before, all the pressure she put on him to be anything but what he was. Then again, what was he?

About two-thirds of the novel is set in Westport, CT. I spend a couple of years as a grade schooler in the early 60s on Briar Oak Drive in Weston, Connecticut, the town next to Westport – and it was in Weston itself that the idea for the novel took root in a very young Bill Roorbach’s mind after a near-brush with the greatness that was Led Zeppelin. In 1963, my family moved to Miami where the middle of the book is set (we later moved to Miramar, about 15 miles north), and though for the ten years I was forced to live there I swore I’d move back to Connecticut as soon as I turned 18, I was for some time a Miami Dolphins fan. Everyone down there was in 1970, 1971, and especially 1972, the Undefeated Season, followed by the 1973 Super Bowl. Seeing familiar names in this book – Bob Griese, Don Shula, and, my favorite of them all, Garo Yepremian, whose designer neckties I bought in absurd quantities for every male member of my family – made me smile. One fictional scene in particular brought me back forty years to that very real, very ridiculous blocked-punt-that-turned-into-an-intercepted-pass that still lives in my memory. In fact, I wonder if it served as inspiration for the fictional event.

I then got the hell out of Florida (it took a whole 5 months after I turned 18) not to Connecticut, but to Boston, where, in the mid-80s, I was, like the character Kate, a guest at McLean Hospital for some time, several times.

Midnight, two o’clock, four o’clock, four-thirty, five, each ghost returning for her hour: Emily, Kate, Mom. And of course Perdhomme and Kaiser, and my completely vincible dad.

And now I’ve ended up living in the same state as author Bill Roorbach (who got here by a circuitous route himself, including Boston and Connecticut) and his book set in those other two places I’ve lived. This is, by the way, the third – the third, for pete’s sake – Norwegian-related work I’ve done in the past 3 months. Come on, when was the last time you read a book or story with even a single Norwegian word in it? My father was from Sweden, but it’s Norway calling me; maybe I’d better go check out some Ibsen or something.

At a soirée for her foundation I waited almost an hour, got to study her as she posed a couple of risers up on the grand stairway, finally had my moment, kiss-kiss. Anyone watching would have thought she didn’t know me, that she only greeted a fading sports figure, the up-and-coming restauranteur, but they couldn’t see how I slipped the speckled stone into the bodice of her tight, strapless dress, couldn’t feel how she let my fingers linger a moment against her breast, couldn’t hear when she whispered my name in my ear, and then a familiar Norwegian phrase, something from our time together, something we’d said over and over again, something a little shy of love, which was how she wanted it: jeg ar ohso glad I deg – “I am so very fond of you.”

I haven’t said much about the actual book yet, have I? Well, it’s very, very good, and very, very readable. When I’m seriously enjoying a book, I read slower and slower as the pages dwindle down. The last chapter of this one took a full day.

No matter what you’ve heard, or will read in reviews, it’s not about football (though there is football and there are football players); it’s not about ballet (though there is ballet and there are ballet dancers); and it’s not about murder (though there are murders and the who-done-it serves as the plot engine). It’s about crossing between dream and reality, between the world of the ordinary and the world of the giants; and about what happens to a giant who doesn’t really want to be a giant. It’s about who we love, and why, and what we do – or don’t do – about it. Like many really good books, it’s about the people within it, and how they get tangled up in themselves. Revenge is not always a dish best served cold; sometimes it’s a dish best not served at all, but so often we serve it anyway, don’t we.

And, oh yeah, it’s about food.

I have a thing about last meals…. 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 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.

In the first chapters, you’ll want a BLT; no, you’ll crave a BLT, one with “thick, flavorful bacon…slices of tomato thick as steaks, crisp, fresh-picked lettuce from the garden” served with “china-lavender ramekins of house-made mayonnaise….” Later, you’ll want wild mushroom sausages. I hope someone marketed this book to chef-types and serious foodies, especially vegetarians, because I don’t even like mushrooms, but I want to make those mushroom sausages (and there’s enough detail in the writing to make that possible; at least one reader made the lentil stew otherwise described, and I may do that as well). Be aware, however: in the later chapters of the book, your appetite for mushroom sausages may wane.

One of the engines of my crush, of course, was that Emily wanted nothing to do with me. Sophomore year, she’d written a series of anti-establishment opinion pieces for the school paper, in one of which she attacked me as the leader of the football team, called me “reptilian.” I’d been kind of hurt, found myself almost agreeing with her. The other guys immediately started calling me Lizard.

I was surprised at how down-to-earth and grounded main character David “Lizard” Hochmeyer came across, when he is, in fact, a football star, an A student in school, and a nice guy as well. How do you write that without going stereotype? Beyond that, how do you write a star so that the reader doesn’t even realize he’s a star until pretty well into the book, and then is surprised? One way is to have him doubt his specialness, see it as no big deal. He may be 6-foot-8, but he’s surrounded by giants, after all – and giant ghosts.

I don’t know why I’m so dismissive of my National Football League years. Regret, perhaps, a kind of mourning, what might have been. Though when you think about it, the whole thing is pretty impressive, history few can claim. I guess I just of actually think about it much…. there were some five million kids playing high school football, some fifty-five thousand playing NCAA college ball, but only some twelve hundred in the NFL, only about two hundred draftees each year, of which at most ten were quarterbacks. I’d barely made it, was my only observation.

But the character who finally in the last pages drew my tears from me was his sister Kate – with just two words. No, I won’t tell you what they are. They wouldn’t mean anything out of context. I try so hard not to cry over every book I read, and I thought I might make it this time, but that scene was an arrow straight to the tenderest regions of the heart.

I wish I’d paid more attention to the speckled stone as it was passed back and forth between David and the dancer; I suspect it’s something of a harbinger, but I realized its importance too late to notice if it’s associated with the possessing character’s troubles or triumphs, offense switching to defense. That’s ok, I’ll pick it up on the reread – yes, there will be a reread. I think I’d like to re-read Gatsby, and maybe learn more about Les Sylphides as well, before then, as well.

Roorbach names The Great Gatsby – specifically, Nick – and the ballet Les Sylphides, among his inspirations for the book; they’re both easy to spot. It’s got almost a spiral structure, presenting events then curling around in time to present more detail about them, or to fill in blanks. It’s told in what my buddy Marko Fong calls “Memoir Voice,” that first-person-past looking back, occasionally interjecting hints at what is to come, and what has been learned between the events being narrated and the time of narration. It’s marvelously effective.

Roorbach’s Self-Interview at The Nervous Breakdown is a hoot; the official book site site has more interviews, as well as traditional reviews.

Across the pond the High Side was dark. Dad’s rowboat was still on the shore. I sometimes got in it under moonlight, rode back and forth.

This is the book I expected Beautiful Ruins to be; oddly, it reminds me bit of Ghana Must Go, as both trace the past and the present through the future, and culminate in a denoument that’s even more powerful than the climax. I admire a book that uses the word “vincible” in a natural fashion. I admire a mystery that’s really about the inner workings of people, the ultimate mystery. I admire the cover: I liked the original hardcover design, but this paperback was extraordinary; I swear that velvet finish adds a luminescent glow, and I’ve said before how much I love the feel of it in my hands (yes, I sit around caressing books, you got a problem with that?). It was a delicious read on many levels, and I admire that. After all, I was destined to read it.

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4 responses to “Bill Roorbach: Life Among Giants (Algonquin, 2012)

  1. Pingback: Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World (FSG, 1994) | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Literary Death Match: PtldME3 | A Just Recompense

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