The word “decade” starts the word “decadence,” and while that’s only a twist of linguistic fate, at no time was that more apt a pairing of words than the 1980s, a period when excess was the way of the day, when too much was not only not enough but just the beginning. Further, in the 80s there was perhaps nowhere on earth that excess was more on garish display than on Wall Street and in the lives of the men whose endless running and gunning made the hamster wheel go.
That’s the setting of The Fall of Princes (Algonquin Books), the new novel by Robert Goolrick, author of the bestseller A Reliable Wife. Goolrick knows his way around a sentence, and he knows very well how to gather those sentences into narratives that tantalize, enthrall, and leave you breathless.
The hero of The Fall of Princes, his third novel, is Rooney, at one time a Big Swinging Dick on Wall Street in the 80s, now a clerk at Barnes and Noble. Rooney started off wanting to be an artist and soon realized that an actual living might be harder to make than paintings. Soon after, in a card-game version of chicken, he won a job at a Wall Street firm populated by BSDs, and he set out to be the biggest SD of them all, a financial vampire never content to simply drink but determined to suck dry every possible person and experience he came upon.
Rooney was dazzled. By the money that piled up even higher than the cocaine. By the girls (and sometimes boys) he could use for sex and then toss away like Kleenex after jerking off. By the cars and the houses, the jet-setting. By the senseless consumption of whatever the finest restaurants and art galleries had on their menus. Each a milestone on a road with no stop signs, no yield signs. All driven by the deal. The deals. The exchanges of so much of other people’s money that the commissions generated seemed (and maybe were) bigger than the economies of small countries.
Inevitably, that’s the kind of life that catches up with you. It caught up with the 80s in the form of AIDS, which is woven through sections of The Fall of Princes like poison-dipped thread. It caught up with some of Rooney’s colleagues, too, whose falls were epically tragic, and it caught up with Rooney too, leaving a man folded by loss, spindled by having tasted delights that were then taken from him, and mutilated by cruelties of life and love that left him a shadow of who he once longed to be and once, for a time, a short time, actually was. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
In Rooney, Goolrick has composed a highly polished lens that looks back at a time whose very last desire was a clear view of itself. Or is Rooney a freshly sharpened blade instead, one primed for self-mutilation? Goolrick dismantles the 80s with precision, horror, regret, and, not surprisingly, a kind of heartbreak that comes across like someone longing after a lost love who wants absolutely nothing to do with you. His prose is exacting, his sentences sometimes beautiful, and you get the feeling he knows every detail because he was there.
And of course he was there. An advertising copywriter and creative director, Goolrick rode the wave of the 80s right into the 90s and then was ejected, fired at 53 with nothing to do and nowhere to go but into the worlds he would create in his novels. A Rooney not of Wall Street but Madison Avenue, Goolrick burned brightly, white hot, until someone blew out the match and took it all the toys away from him.
The opening line of The Fall of Princes is this: “When you strike a match, it burns brighter in the first nanosecond than it will ever burn again. That first incandescence. That instantaneous and brilliant flash.” That instantaneous flash is what sets up and sets off the tale of Did You Ever Have a Family (Gallery/Scout Press), by Bill Clegg. Like The Fall of Princes, this is a novel about spectacular, life-altering loss. Clegg, who was and still is a literary agent, came close to losing it all through drug addiction. He chronicled that part of his life in two memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days, and now he’s turned his extraordinary talent to fiction.
Did You Ever Have a Family is about the aftermath of a tragedy. June Reid, on the day before her daughter’s wedding, loses her daughter, her almost son-in-law, her ex-husband, and her fiancé, all at once, when their house explodes. In just one moment, everyone she loves is wiped from her life, leaving June not just alone but devastatingly singular in the world.
In a mix of first- and third-person chapters narrated by different characters, Clegg presents a kaleidoscope of the tragedy’s after-effects as well as some of the moments that led up to it. Doling out details with purpose and precision, like a fisherman letting out line, Clegg’s endless varieties of bait hook you over and over again, drawing droplets of blood as they draw you ever deeper into these character’s lives. June, who runs off not so much to find a new life as to get away from the scene of the old one. Lydia, whose son June was to marry. Kelly and Rebecca, the proprietors of the motel where June ends up. Cissy, the maid at the motel. Lolly, June’s daughter. The cast is rich and varied, and each character holds at least one piece of the puzzle.
While it’s tempting to say this book has multiple narrators, there’s a bigger idea at work here. This novel was composed in the musical sense, composed and orchestrated. I believe Clegg’s got melody in mind, and these characters are his instruments, and his symphony of destruction and its aftermath swells and ebbs, building tentatively toward an answer that is anything but a solution. Though we find out what happened, in the end what happened was the first booming note in the endlessly fascinating symphony that follows it.
That explosion, while tragic, simply sets these characters in motion. It blasts them off in their own directions like particles of dust after a supernova. The ones who dare to look can see them hurtling farther and farther away from one another into a vastness they cannot describe, and they seem to look only backward, never forward, never ahead. Clegg, whose writing is deeply affecting and spot-on-the-moon sharp, loves each and every one of these people. He’s given them thoughtful lives and intricate, sometimes searing backstories that inform their place, however small, in the life that June saw come to an end that day.
In The Fall of Princes and Did You Ever Have a Family, we see two authors who fell from the top, from whatever grace they had achieved, men who grappled with degrees of loss that would give the rest of us a lifetime of nightmares. Yet as they fell, they managed to grasp something important and unforgettable. One found answers in a life that was once explosively big and became small, and the other found questions in a collection of small lives whose trajectories were changed by an “instantaneous and brilliant flash.” ◊