In his 2007 memoir, “The End of the World as We Know It,” Virginian Robert Goolrick describes a decade of his life lost to drinking and drugs in New York.
In his new novel, “The Fall of Princes,” he reconstructs that decade, the 1980s, with the story of a Wall Street trader based loosely on his experiences.
The narrator, Rooney, studied acting and piano, went to Europe on a fellowship and meant to be an artist. But he found that if he “could never be any more than mediocre, I could at least be rich.”
He went to business school and landed a job at “the Firm” in a poker game with his boss. In the novel, he reflects on the years that followed as shallow, self-absorbed, and in shameless pursuit of money, luxury and sex. And, of course, a swift and dramatic fall left him alone and working at Barnes & Noble.
The older Rooney is self-pitying and prone to lofty generalizations. But the novel is an engaging ride with memorable characters and stories of decadence and self-destruction.
In an interview, Goolrick doesn’t shy from claiming the story as his own.
“The main character is, for the most part, me, and the arc of his rise and fall echoes my own,” he says. “It’s a very, very personal novel.”
A Lexington native, Goolrick worked in advertising in New York for 35 years. One of his clients was Goldman Sachs, an experience that often took him to the trading floor.
“The book isn’t really about Wall Street, but about a generation that came of age in the ’80s, and Wall Street was just the quintessence of that,” he says. “A lot of young people making far more money than they deserved.”
Goolrick says the characters are based on real friends and acknowledges them in the book as the “sweethearts and darlings of my youth.”
While his memoir alienated people back in Virginia, Goolrick hopes that the friends portrayed in this novel “see what I’m trying to do is cherish their youth, that I love them very dearly.”
For all the regret that Goolrick shows via the narrator, his affection for the people he knew then shines through. Everyone is a hero and a villain, and he loved them all.
“Things changed radically in the ’80s,” he says. “People dispersed, died of AIDS, married with children, moved to the ’burbs. I wanted them all back, so I called them back.”
After being fired from advertising, Goolrick wrote his memoir and first novel in New York. But he moved back to Virginia eight years ago to write “Heading Out to Wonderful,” a tale set in 1948 Brownsburg in Rockbridge County. He says he needed to re-immerse himself in “how people talk and think and act” in his home state.
Goolrick now lives in a house on the Corrotoman River and is working on another Shenandoah Valley-set novel about a 1969 hippie commune. With that book on the way, and all his novels, including “Fall,” optioned by major movie studios, you may be seeing Goolrick’s name a lot in coming years.
“The Fall of Princes” is an enjoyable read — with echoes of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and Jay McInerney. But where those books often reveled in the lurid excess of the era, Goolrick wallows in the disillusionment that followed. The older narrator takes tours of apartments he can’t afford, imagines wives and children who never were, has birthday cakes iced with “Dad” from nonexistent kids, and a ring inscribed “Love Always, Carmela,” a reference to his ex-wife.
The consuming nature of his remorse is coupled with contempt for younger or more successful people. He silently advises them from his cheap seats at the opera and on cruise vacations. Rooney wants you to know he reads Proust and now has the soul of an artist.
Goolrick’s prose shines when he lets his beloved characters out. Sharp dialogue lends to memorable scenes, such as Carmela’s birthday in Las Vegas, an absurdist bachelor party, and a lover who returns to his life for 11 days of cancer treatments and designer dresses.
A story of a girl who overdoses at Rooney’s beach house explains the beginning of his fall. And a prostitute Rooney befriends after he loses his job delivers what Goolrick considers the most important line of the book: “The greatest sin is to love somebody and not tell them.”
These chapters are compelling as short stories, and the novel often reads like a series of lovely, fictionalized vignettes from Goolrick’s lost decade.
As the first line of his previous novel notes, “The thing is, all memory is fiction.” S
“The Fall of Princes” will be released Aug. 25 and is available locally at the Fountain and Chop Suey bookstores. Robert Goolrick speaks at Fountain on Wednesday, Sept. 2.