I remember reading a story in the New York Times last year about a 21-year-old summer intern who died from exhaustion at the end of his seven-week experience. Dead from overwork at an investment firm. At the time I thought, what a ridiculous waste of a life. For what? Money and influence? My Midwestern sensibilities and the wisdom gained from having lived long enough to know that money is a tool that has no ability to bring happiness or comfort, would not allow me to remember what it might be like to be young and driven to grab for the gold ring. A follow-up story in the Huffington Post said the death did spur changes in the internship programs at many firms. I kept thinking about that young man and his death as I read Robert Goolrick’s newest novel, The Fall of Princes. I think Goolrick would agree that a life is wasted if the only pursuit is wealth.
The Fall of Princes is set in the go-go, self-involved years of the 1980s. The first-person narrator’s initial obsession with money and status could certainly be a meditation on contemporary corporate greed and the expansion of that greed at any cost by the 1 Percent. But let’s be honest here, the abuse of power and wealth was not an invention of the current times or even of the 1980s. Many scholars believe democracy, as we know it, was only able to survive and thrive because of slave labor. Our national story is shrouded in the dehumanization of others for the benefit of a few. So Goolrick’s story is not a new tale. It’s as old as any. In Goolrick’s skilled storytelling voice, any reader who was alive and aware of the world around her in the 1980s, would be transported back in time. The rush of living on the edge, of excesses and of self-absorption is palatable in the pages of Goolrick’s third novel. The reader holds on, awaiting the inevitable crash of this unnamed antihero. Goolrick tells of a spectacular fall and the resurrection of a shattered life into one that is simple and elegant with only specks of the former self floating about like dust motes in the light from a window.
As Goolrick is known to do, his opening chapter grabs the reader by the throat and pulls her through the pages. I remember gasping after finishing Chapter 1 of Goolrick’s debut novel, the New York Times best seller, A Reliable Wife, another story of wealth and abuse.
Goolrick writes in The Fall of Princes:
“When you strike a match, it burns brighter in the first nanosecond than it will ever burn again. That first incandescence and brilliant flash. 1980 was the year, and I was the match, and that was the year I struck into blinding flame.
“I was a heat-seeking missile headed straight for your gut. Get out of the way or I would take you down. I swear. I’m not proud of it. In fact, I flush with shame at the memory. But that was then, what then was like. Things are different now. I’m not that person anymore.”
The staccato cadence continues throughout the novel. In lesser hands, the pace would become an annoyance and wear out the reader. But Goolrick finds a balance and it works brilliantly. The story unfolds in the retelling of the narrator’s history and his current life as a bookstore clerk. The novel is his mea culpa to all those who he hurt, yet the narrator is unable to forgive himself. There is no room for pity, however. It’s a straightforward retelling of a life gone wrong early. “Forgive me for thinking that I was better than you will ever be. Forgive me for thinking that money equaled a kind of moral superiority.”
With precision and a level of authenticity that could only come from experience, Goolrick unfolds a tale of young men who earn fortunes in one market trade, of spending lavishly on women, and booze and cocaine, the ubiquitous drug of choice for the age. There are episodes at expensive weekend rentals in the Hamptons, out-of-control parties, women and men and sex and abuse, and the overdose death of a sweet fairy-like character on one of those misspent weekends. Then there is the marriage of our narrator to a woman of beauty, status and immense wealth. The marriage reminded me of something I read about in the 1981 nuptials of Prince Charles and Princess Diana: that finding a bride for the prince was no more special than looking for the right filly to breed with a valuable stallion. The courtship between the narrator and Carmela was as fast as the pace of the novel and so was the divorce. “Carmela divorced me by six o’clock on the day I got fired. Semper paratus. We had been together almost exactly two years. There was no issue, as I had always known there wouldn’t be.”
The novel could have become a caricature of the 1980s but Goolrick is so much better than that. There are deeply touching moments when Carmela reappears in the narrator’s life. The scenes cause the reader to think what could have been had it not been for the time and the place the two met. Goolrick gives the reader’s heart yet another tug when Holly arrives in the final chapters of the book. A transgendered prostitute gives the narrator a gift more valuable than any other. Holly tells him: “ ‘I know nothing will happen when I tell you I love you. There’s no way. You’re regular. I’m well, whatever I am, I’m not regular. I’m not telling you because of that. I’m telling you so that, when you hail a cab or answer the phone, when you walk into a roomful of strangers, you’ll know that there is somebody in the world who loves you and will always love you, wherever you go, whatever happens, until the end of time. Don’t ever forget that. Promise you will never forget that you are loved.’ She crossed her heart, and touched one finger to my lips. And then, as quickly as she had come, she was gone.”
As I read The Fall of Princes, I wanted to believe the narrator was influenced by Robert Goolrick’s own experiences. I met Goolrick several years ago when the university where I work honored him with a literary award for A Reliable Wife. Goolrick was charming and gracious. He was generous with his time and seemed sincerely touched that we would honor his work. For some still unexplained reason, I wanted to believe that behind his good manners and soothing voice, was something more complex, maybe the remnant of a young man who lived on the edge and survived to create stories that linger and haunt. As I read his essay “While We Were Dancing” in the Fall 2015 edition of The Algonquin Reader, I found that my intuition was correct.
Goolrick writes in the poignant essay of his own lost generation, “It was a generation, a whole generation of bright young men and women who thought there was no more tomorrow, only more of today, an infinite expansion of wanting and an infinite answer of getting.”
“It occurred to them too late, far too late, that what they thought was inevitable was not even remotely possible. And so they fell, their lives a never-ending plunge. I know. I was one of them.”
The Fall of Princes
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Release date Aug. 25, 2015