For all we've so lately heard about the "one percent" — the ultrawealthy class of Americans reported to control our political and financial institutions — what can we actually say we know about them? Can we even begin to imagine what their lives are like? How long have they had their hands on the control levers?
Although Robert Goolrick's "The Fall of Princes" takes place in the distant 1980s, it gives us a glimpse into the fictional life of one one-percenter's ascendancy and fall. Rooney, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is an unapologetic Wall Street shark. By day he manipulates financial markets without regard for ramifications of any sort, intent only to bolster his earning prowess. By night, he and his cohorts descend into a world of unabashed hedonism. There's no shortage of drugs, booze, cars, clothes, music, clubs and sex. Mountains of sex, with perversions and proclivities that might make Caligula blush.
Yet for all of his success in the halls of commerce, to say nothing of between the sheets, Rooney declares over and over again that he's aware of the moral vacuum he has created for himself.
"It's useless to say I didn't know any better. My skin crawled every day, and my nights were haunted by booze and raucous chicaneries, but there was never enough booze or drugs for me to forget that I was being unfaithful to the man I had meant to be, the man I had hoped to be."
Just who the imaginary man he was meant to be is never clearly drawn. Instead, we see the man he has become: a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, divorced and friendless, a man whose only possessions are his memories (and the incomparably fine bed linens he can't live without).
We might have empathized with his fall from grace, if only he'd let us. Instead, Rooney makes sure we know we're not to feel sorry for him. The problem is, even without his insisting, the average reader will likely be hard pressed to conjure much emotion for him at all, given the amount of profligate detail he provides for his own story, and the pleasure he seems to take in the memory of it.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to other novels in a similar key. Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City" and Brett Easton Ellis's "American Psycho" come to mind. And "Fall of Princes" shares something with these classics. Goolrick is a vivid writer with a penchant for electric scenes. And certainly he has shown us what it's like to live with unfathomable wealth and privilege. But at its heart, his third novel lacks soul — something that can't be said of its predecessors.
Peter Geye is a Minneapolis writer and book critic. His third novel will be published next June.