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'The Fall of Princes' review: Robert Goolrick's novel of Wall Street debauchery

Robert Goolrick, author of

Robert Goolrick, author of "The Fall of Princes" (Algonquin, August 2015) Photo Credit: Andrew Watkins

THE FALL OF PRINCES, by Robert Goolrick. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 296 pp., $25.95.

Rooney, the narrator of Robert Goolrick's elegiac third novel, is a true creature of the 1980s. His story, like that decade's, is one of profound greed and sudden collapse, a cautionary tale of a Master of the Universe brought low by his own glittering excess.

"The Fall of Princes" consists of two interwoven narratives. The more beguiling, which opens in 1980, tells the story of Rooney's rise. After abandoning his youthful ambition to become an artist, he earns a degree from the Wharton School, then lands a job as a trader at an unnamed firm that students of the Reagan era will recognize as Salomon Brothers. Almost immediately, he becomes part of the young Wall Street elite who expect "salaries equivalent to our ages multiplied by 100,000" and believe "that black limousines were public transportation."

Nicknaming himself Billy Champagne, Rooney thinks nothing of spending a couple hundred thousand dollars to rent a Long Island beach house for a summer of cocaine-fueled debauchery. "We were the people people wrote about when they wrote about the evils of contemporary society," he confesses.

The nonstop bacchanal results, inevitably, in casualties. At first, these tend to be women. There is Rooney's longtime girlfriend, a ballerina turned model; a waiflike European countess who is a fixture at that rowdy summer house; and many others. The only true survivor is Carmela, Rooney's hardhearted heiress wife, who turns out to be too rich and too jaded to be wounded by his drunken callousness.

Many of Rooney's fellow Masters of the Universe also come undone. Among them are Harrison Wheaton Seacroft, a closeted gay man whose plummet comes immediately after he receives the bad medical news that is so characteristic of the era. And then there is Louis Patterson Trotmeier IV, a lady-killer whose downfall arrives in the form of a pop star who bears a more than passing resemblance to Madonna.

By the time Black Monday is just around the corner, Rooney is drinking so heavily that he decides to order engraved apology cards from Tiffany to distribute to a stream of appalled hosts. While entertaining a laundromat oligarch at the Russian Tea Room, he commits a grave, vodka-saturated offense.

In the second of the book's narrative strands, we meet a kinder, gentler Rooney a few decades after his collapse. "It was a radiance without warmth," he says of his former brilliance, "and I thought of nothing but myself in the brightness of the light." He also wrestles with his complex sexuality, gradually understanding that his cruelty toward women sprang less from macho self-confidence than from his refusal to accept his true nature.

Goolrick, author of the best-selling gothic novel "A Reliable Wife," was a New York ad man in the 1980s who ended the decade broke and in Alcoholics Anonymous. This helps explain his novel's air of credibility.

While "The Fall of Princes" patrols territory marked by Tom Wolfe, Jay McInerney and Michael Lewis, Goolrick makes this world feel as if it is all his own. He is greatly aided in this by a finely tuned sense of bleak humor. "When you lose everything, you don't die," the older Rooney deadpans. "You just continue in ordinary pants with nothing in your pockets."

Goolrick's only slip into sentimentality comes in his final chapters, when Rooney becomes entangled with a transvestite prostitute who appears to have escaped from a Lou Reed song. This is a small misstep, however, in a memorable book about a decade many survivors would like to forget.

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