Secrets and food and celebrity and bodies. These are the subjects of Maine author Bill Roorbach's new novel, Life Among Giants, a literary mystery with a tinge of soap-opera sudsiness.
"I have a thing about last meals," our narrator announces, the first line of the book, a conversational opener that invites the reader to sit down and dig in. "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 really cared about food . . . 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." (The sandwiches were BLTs, in case you're wondering.)
Roorbach, an award-winning writer who previously taught at the University of Maine at Farmington and still lives in that college town, weaves a whirling tapestry — the strands sometimes just too flimsy to grab hold of — centered on David "Lizard" Hochmeyer, a strikingly tall, athletic man, his flawed family, and their neighbors across the pond at the High Side mansion. Namely, Sylphide, a world-famous and incredibly alluring ballerina.
There's a comparison to Gatsby to made here (and many have made it, including Publisher's Weekly). Lizard is naturally drawn to the wealthy, glittering people across the way — they are just as damaged as everyone else, of course, maybe more so — and sucked into their scintillating, dangerous vortex. Even as they years go by and Lizard makes a life of his own, his thoughts and desires return again and again to Sylphide and the High Side. "She's my mainstay," he says.
Eventually he heeds those desires, drawn back to his roots for a final showdown, an unraveling of the lingering mystery: Who killed his parents, shot them point-blank right in front of him? And why? Secrets. Celebrity.
Other mysteries go unsolved. The mysteries of the human condition — how to deal with grief, how to discover your true calling, how to help loved ones who are struggling. Lizard copes with the help of food, and bodies. Cooking and sex. Roorbach's descriptions of both are simultaneously sensuous and matter-of-fact. We read about "fresh pickles and cornbread and actual chitterlings and thick pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, collard greens with pig's feet, sweet potato pie with a ginger-pecan crust." Lizard admits that he believes "the food would shield me, and not in some vague way." As for the women in this book, they are muscular and powerful.
One gets the sense that Lizard is constantly seeking redemption, never able to find it because he is unable to fully articulate what he wants or needs from the people around him. Roorbach's choice to make frequent chronological leaps back and forth in time underscores Lizard's own inability to get the events of his own life to make sense. (It also serves, occasionally, to confuse the reader.)
But secrets are not meant to be easily uncovered. As Lizard reflects, midway through his own journey:
"Our secrets gave us power.