New York in the 1980s was the best of times, at least for some people, and Rooney, the narrator of Robert Goolrick’s new “The Fall of Princes” is one of the lucky ones. A Wall Street trader with a golden touch, he makes “ridiculous amounts of money . . . [s]tupid money” and indulges in all the excesses that wealth can buy.
Of course, that decade was also the worst of times, and for a greater number, as AIDS appeared, cutting down tens of thousands before any treatment was found.
These two cultural touchstones defined the era and bookend Goolrick’s new novel. And while he describes a way of life that may never be possible again, he also manages to convey its beautiful, tragic appeal in an unforgettable rush of prose.
Rooney, one of the titular princes of the book, does not start out wealthy. He doesn’t start out seeking to be, either. Out of college, he hoped to be an artist — a musician or a writer — and only after a month in Europe does he learn that aspiration does not equal aptitude. Early on in this anecdotal book, he describes how he gave up his first dreams to attend business school and how, in the kind of crazy gamble that would characterize Wall Street in those days, he won his job.
Only later in the book does he reveal another, more important, motivation for his shift in focus, a change that effectively silences his inner voice.
At first, none of what he has left behind matters. “I can’t express how thrilling it all was,” he says, of the wealth. Of owning “a Lamborghini of which there were only twelve in the world. Knowing that in London there were shoemakers and tailors who had my measurements on file.”
In a raw and breathless first-person voice, he shows us a lifestyle that has been written about before by writers from Tom Wolfe to Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. And while Goolrick’s Rooney can’t say much new about the money, he is baldly upfront about the kind of people he and his colleagues were. Consummate salesmen, certainly: “I could sell ice cream to Eskimos. Dead Eskimos.” But also selfish creeps who knowingly traded junk bonds and “discarded” women “like opened soup cans.”
He is unlikable in the extreme, “hungry to turn the deal that would cheat a fellow worker and a friend out of a lousy thousand bucks.” But if he is honest about his avarice, he also clearly depicts the appeal of his hedonistic lifestyle, an immersion in “beauty and insatiability” that rivals ancient Rome. The combination is irresistible, bittersweet.
Compelling as well is the underlying mystery of the book. What happened? How did it all fall apart? Rooney is honest from the start that the wild times are over. “I work in a bookshop now,” he tells us. “I wear a name plate.” Although the narrative wanders back and forth in time, from early on there are premonitions that the high life was not all fun and games. People show up only to die: a quiet, sweet houseguest ODs. A colleague jumps from an upper-story window. And then, of course, AIDS hits.
In 1981, Rooney reads of a strange “gay cancer,” and a few years later, it is everywhere. “Suddenly, love is fatal.”
This is not simply a morality tale. Along with temptation and regret, Goolrick is also writing about passion and love — both of which he portrays in heartbreaking specificity. More than money, these define Rooney’s life. Sandwiched between the wild parties and harsh betrayals are a night when three people desired him and a day when he was reassured that he was loved. The tension between these — how he reacts — are what ultimately power “The Fall of Princes,” the heartbeat under all the glitter.
THE FALL OF PRINCES
By Robert Goolrick. Algonquin,
296 pp., $25.95
Clea Simon is the author of 17 mysteries. She can be reached at cleasimon.com.