“The one percent” has entered the lexicon to describe those lucky and/or greedy few for whom money is literally no object, recalling Fitzgerald’s adage that they are effectively superhuman. Robert Goolrick’s electric third novel, The Fall of Princes, instead points to Hemingway’s rejoinder: The only thing separating the rich from others is that they have more money.
The novel is set in the 1980s, when greed was declared good and America was “the most heartless country on the planet.” Rooney is a Wall Street trader who buys and sells “the world before lunch” and then spends his evenings in a delirium of booze, coke and women. He consumes conspicuously and competitively, tones his body to Apollonian heights and seeks the company of the similarly well-heeled. But much like the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Rooney is empty at the core. A failed artist who thought fulfillment might come instead from wealth, he longs for something simpler: someone to love him, children to dote over.
He also realizes that he is bisexual at a time when AIDS, still poorly understood, was decimating the gay community in New York. The most passionate parts of the novel concern this scourge and the fear it engendered among the libertines. As Rooney’s substance abuse intensifies, he engages in ever riskier behavior, descending rapidly down the social ladder until a trans streetwalker provides him with something like redemption.
This is no simple clone of The Wolf of Wall Street, despite its brazen celebration of sticking it to the common man. But the novel is not exactly a condemnation of avarice, either. Instead, it is a study in how “a big hoopla of vulgarity and testosterone” conspires to eradicate the better angels of a man’s nature. Rooney is a sheep who dons the wolf’s clothing, only to be devoured by it.