Since Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, the ’80s novel has doubled as travelogue of the decade’s purported shallowness. The dropping of brand names, the accounting of drugs snorted and liquors consumed, the non-committal contempt for women — these hallmarks appear on the page as predictably as bubbles in champagne.
In Robert Goolrick’s The Fall of Princes, the fizz is gone. Tracing the arc of a Wall Street trader from washboard ab highs to rat-infested apartment lows, it wallows in the sort of sentimentality that’s a consequence of acting tough. The results are a creepy and cynical novel.
Like Ellis, Goolrick’s Rooney resorts to the second-person point of view when he has a rancid insight to peddle. “You see Madonna at the Garden, this girl who has caught the zeitgeist and sucked the world into the profound depth of her vagina,” he shares. Describing the interviewing practices of the nebulous and sinister entity that hires him known only as The Firm, he says that applicants feel as though they are “standing naked at Dachau, inspected by uniformed Gestapo.”
And that’s the first 10 pages. Goolrick, however, establishes his rickety plot: Disgraced and working as a clerk at a Barnes & Noble, Rooney looks back at his golden years. Goolrick doesn’t expend many words on what Rooney actually does for The Firm, a lacuna as convenience: the job is less remarkable than a corporate credit card and the ease with which the hundreds of thousands spent a week on whores and coke get replenished with fresh millions.
A society of men without women but an unclosed spigot of dough gives Rooney the liberty to indulge his homosexual inclinations, too. While American Psycho used the narcissism of its protagonist as a means of baiting the hook to attract more willing victims, The Fall of Princes regards Rooney’s sexuality as a vice no different than his fetish for crisp, expensive bed sheets; not until half the novel has ended does Goolrick mention, buried in a long paragraph, that Rooney’s nightcrawling involves trolling for guys. He’s got an explanation: “I could never understand why anybody would want frozen yogurt when you could have a blow--- in the doorway.”
As AIDS casts a deadly shadow on Rooney’s proclivities, Goolrick isn’t up to the task of casting New York as the Unreal City inhabited by temporary patricians cast in the gaudiest spree of modern times; his tough guy kitsch and awful prose belong to another era of closeted sensibilities, the kind of manner redolent in memoirs written by Reagan administration officials. He breaks the cardinal rule every creative writing student knows: he tells instead of shows. There’s a wife named Carmela who’s shoved offstage after walk-ins in Halston or whatever. Minor characters who Tom Wolfe would have etched as delicious gargoyles drop profanities and vanish.
As tedious and numbing as American Psycho is, at least it ignores moments like Rooney’s affection for a transsexual hooker named — guess — Holly, missing only a disquisition on Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side to situate the reader in Ellis Land. But she teaches him a pretty maxim: “The greatest sin is to love somebody and not to tell your love.” Happily, Rooney can tell himself often.
Goolrick, who wrote a lurid 2007 memoir depicting the cupidities of his parents, celebrates the self-absorption of a fifth-rate intellect. A bacchanal at the old Russian Tea Room involving borscht and oceans of vodka and dancing on a table top stops the steady chug of Rooney’s train. The rest is penury and Proust, whom we’re supposed to believe Rooney has read and loved as a novelist and not a caricature erected above the Barnes & Noble café. “It gave me an overriding sense of superiority over the vast majority of mankind,” he says, not paying a whit of attention to his adjective-noun ratio or the misuse of “overriding.”
But these heavings from a superfluous man don’t end until Rooney tells Carmela over skate and sorbet in Central Park South that “it was nice, though wasn’t it, for a while?” Hardly the thing to say to a woman you don’t know.
Alfred Soto is a media adviser and instructor of journalism at Florida International University.
Meet the author
Who: Robert Goolrick
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: www.booksandbooks.com; 305-442-4408