Bill Roorbach is an anomaly. Not because he genre-hops between fiction and nonfiction, or because he delayed his writing career so he could tour the world as a musician. Not because his new book, Life Among Giants, is his ninth book and third novel, is already in its third printing and in talks to become a TV series à la Mad Men, but for the art world of the American seventies. Bill Roorbach is an anomaly because he’s just so nice.
Magers & Quinn was sparsely attended on Thursday, January 17 2013. Less than ten people warmed the metal folding chairs set up in the poetry section to hear the author read–and most of those were from a high school class and needed to attend a literary event for extra credit. Of the rest of us, I was the only one who didn’t know Bill Roorbach personally. In an uncommon show of friendliness and extroversion, the author (a breed of human more typically prone to meekness or at least faux modesty) came over to me and struck up a conversation. We chatted for five minutes about this and that–Mill Ruins Park and some mountains in southern Texas where we’d both spent a bit of time–until the M&Q staff gave a brief introduction. When he addressed the “crowd,” his presentation had the same informal tone as our conversation.
To call this a “reading” would be, technically, correct. But he didn’t read from his new book until he’d chatted haphazardly for nearly an hour. Without mentioning why, he launched into an autobiographical narrative that would have made for a killer novel all its own: when young Bill Roorbach realized that his dreams to become a rock star might require supplemental funding, he found a job taking care of an abandoned estate. The property was a mansion unlike homes we now associate with the descriptor–the place was a palace. It had been abandoned for thirty years, and Roorbach basically took up living in it, inviting his friends and bandmates to live in it as well. They each occupied separate wings, and came together mostly to play music–which they did in the bottom of the dried-out pool. This pool had a deep end of more than twenty feet (!), which functioned as an amphitheater.
One night as they were rocking out after hours, they heard another band in the distance–there were several other mansions a ways away, lining the top of a ridge that looked down over the property Roorbach took care of. “The music,” he said, “seemed impossibly loud. We cranked everything up and tried to match it, but it was just overpowering.”
The next day, he asked the mailman who was staying in the mansion on the ridge. “Some rock band,” the mailman said. “I’d never heard of them. Something about a Zeppelin?” That wailing they’d heard carrying over the distance was that of Roorbach’s idol, Jimmy Page.
He attempted to deliver his band’s demo tape to rock legends, but was turned away at the door by the most stunning woman he’d ever seen–a dancer, the mailman later informed him. Which led into a recount of his New York years, where he worked as a carpenter and played music, and dated a professional ballerina. He discussed his love of The Great Gatsby and he discussed his adventures in Denmark, where he toured as a musician under the name “Cowboy Bill.” All eight or nine of us in the audience listened along, marveling at his tales but also at ease in the presence of a gifted storyteller. Off the cuff, talking with his hands and using his body to illustrate points, he had command not only of the language but of narrative, of his audience, of the process of delivering a story, like no one I’ve seen before.
When he did finally read from the book, which was inspired by the melange of experiences he’d just so thoroughly described, his written prose was similarly superb. Rather than read a cliff-hanging excerpt, or the first several pages of the book, or some snippet that would arouse interest and inspire us to purchase it, he chose to read the last paragraph he wrote (not the last paragraph of the book), and then the first paragraph he wrote (not the first paragraph of the book). Even in these two brief excerpts, influences from the stories he’d just told about his own life were evident. I had been so entertained by his rambling that I hadn’t thought about it, but the entire reading/ speech/ ramble/ story had been accomplishing something subtle–not just providing background or context. He’d been teaching us. It had been a lecture, of sorts, on how to turn experience into literature. I anticipate that the lesson will only continue as I read the book–as it will for everyone else who was in attendance. Because, in the surest sign of a successful reading, everybody left with a copy.
PS–Be sure to check out Bill Roorbach’s entertaining blog at www.BillandDavesCocktailHour.com
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