The Fall of Princes: Robert Goolrick

I couldn’t pass up Robert Goolrick’s The Fall of Princes, the story of a former BSD (“big, swinging dick“) trader from Wall Street who soared the heights in the 80s only to plummet to the lows of working in Barnes and Noble. This is his story, and this long, detailed mea culpa AA/NA style confession of a louse’s fall from the pinnacle of success, a story of excess, sex, and drugs, is morbidly fascinating. And I’ll note here that Goolrick, to his credit, approaches his material with restraint, not crudity, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, so while we read about lines of cocaine and hordes of bedmates, throughout the tale there’s the sense that these young traders, running out of speed, are damaging themselves more than anyone else. The mayhem carries a heavy cost from the outset and doesn’t look like a great deal of decadent fun.

fall of princesThe chapters alternate between the narrator, using the collective ‘we,’ who tells the story of the aggressive, young bull trader lifestyle and the first person narrator who recalls specific incidents.  The narrator lands a job at ‘the Firm,’ where clients “had to have $20 million” in their accounts “at all times. That’s a lot of toys to play with,” and these young traders repeat the words “forty or forty.”

That’s when you retire, they reply with that bland smile. When you reach the age of forty, or your portfolio reaches forty million. That’s when you can get away clean and get your life back. What’s left of it

It’s an adrenaline-fueled life where sleep is a low priority, and rowdy nights are spent drinking, taking drugs, and bedding nameless women. Then when the narrator runs out of steam, he periodically boomerangs to rehab. There’s also a brutal competitiveness amongst the traders which begins with the bodies most of them develop.

Thousands of hours in the world’s most expensive gym, with the world’s most skilled trainers, had brought my body to such a state of perfection that the women who rushed to take off their clothes in my bedroom could only gasp at the luck that had put them into my line of sight, that had made them, even for one night, the most beautiful creatures on earth, with their lithe arms and their skin like chamois and their scents.

The narrator, occasionally referred to by the name Rooney, started out his trader life after various failures as a bad artist and a bad writer, but then turns to trading when he decides that he does not want to end up as one of the “gray masses.”

the place they would end up, neither richer or wiser, filled only with regret and second-tier liquor and the shreds of the dreams they no longer remembered, surprised to wake up one day and be shown the door with a tepid handshake and a future on the edge of old age and death that held only pictures of the kids and grandkids, a cruise to some out-of-season destination every three years, and the notion, which they somehow managed to believe, that this was comfort, that this was all the splendor they got for forty years of relentless drudgery and obsequiousness.

And to all this we said fuck you, we want it all, we want it now, you can drain us of our blood for all we care, but we want impossible things of impossible vintage and provenance. We want salaries equivalent to our ages multiplied by 100,000. We want to live life in a rush of fury and light, to rampage, to pillage our neighbourhoods and rape and demolish our best and closest friends

The collective ‘we’ sections, which at times felt like a Greek chorus describing the ebb and flow of money easily gained and easily lost, are not as powerful as the details of Rooney’s golden life before he ran out of steam just as AIDS swept through his world. There’s a no expense spared summer in the Hamptons … $200,000, a weekend in L.A. … $50,000, and, of course, a bachelor weekend in Vegas. While Rooney bedded and dumped countless women, he finally marries one very high-maintenance woman named Carmela, and he describes their turbulent, short relationship not “so much a marriage as it was like a long, drunken date.”

At times Rooney apologizes for the person he used to be. Sometimes the apology sounds sincere and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s impossible to tell where the remorse ends and the self-pity begins;

Forgive me for thinking that I was better than you will ever be. Forgive me for thinking that money equaled a kind of moral superiority

Rooney picks at the most shameful moments in his life–scabs that won’t heal. There’s one moment when he recalls a game he used to play with his hard-drinking workmates called “To Have and To have Not.”

The idea was you had to think of something you had done that nobody else at the table had done, or something you had never done that everybody else had done.

As the evenings wear on, “the vagaries of human behaviour” are revealed and then Rooney reveals that a girl killed herself when he dumped her. While he mulls over how heartlessly he treated her, a great deal of the regret seems to dwell in the self-pity Rooney wallows in. There’s also the sense that he’d be the same person again in a heartbeat if he got the chance, and we see that aspect of his character in the way Rooney, now in his 50s, dresses in the last of his expensive clothing and spends his days off using  a false name and address and masquerading as a high-flying apartment seeker.

People’s relationship with money is fascinating. Note the films stars who’ve earned millions only to declare bankruptcy, lose homes, or commit suicide when faced with financial disaster and a late life lack of earning power. Money works most of us, not the other way around, and people go the grave never understanding just how finances, and such tedious but necessary things as budgets, work. Of course I was fascinated to read this ‘rise and fall’ tale of a trader–surely, you’d think, someone who would understand money but who ultimately didn’t. All those millions that passed through his hands must have given him some sort of contact high. No authors handle the subject of excess better than Americans, IMO, and it shows here. Yet Goolrick takes the high road when describing the high roller lifestyle rather than sinking to titillation.

(Finally,  I couldn’t help wondering if anyone could survive in NY on Barnes and Nobles wages and save for a foreign trip every year.)

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Woolrick Robert

18 responses to “The Fall of Princes: Robert Goolrick

  1. This sounds irresistibly fascinating. The fact that it does not glorify the excesses does add to its attraction.

    Personally, if I could afford it, I think that I would rather work in Barnes and Noble then on Wall Street.

  2. I’ve worked for a couple of BSDs in my day, and they are a fascinating species, simultaneously repellent and attractive. I gravitate to all books and films on the subject. At various points between my 20s and my 40s, I thought that I would try to retool myself into one of them, but even my most sustained try at that – a several-year stint as a commercial real estate broker, at which I did have intermittent success – simply felt false. You either are a money-driven BSD, or you are not. Liking money and what it can bring – who doesn’t? – is NOT the same as being money-driven. That’s certainly one of the things I learned.

    The answer to your question about Barnes & Noble is “No.” It wouldn’t have been true 30 years ago, let alone today. I used to work as a clerk in a bunch of Manhattan bookshops, including B&N and Doubleday.

  3. This does sound like a fascinating subject – for me as much because it is so far outside how I feel about money and yet I have wondered why for some, the high earning seems to go hand-in-hand with other high risk behaviour. I do believe the internal wiring that makes some people want to work in such an environment is fundamentally different to those of us that are happier with ‘normal jobs’ and an annual holiday.

  4. Thanks for the link. The article really fits well with the book. The book’s main character lands the job after playing a hand of poker with his (to-be) new boss, and the grueling schedule, the idea of a ‘proving ground,’ is pre-eminent in the book.

  5. The psychology is the interesting thing here. Going off on a slight tangent, have you read The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson’s book on his attempts to understand and spot the characteristics of psychopaths? If not, it might be of interest.

  6. Fascinating.
    I always wonder why there’s this obligation to pair trading & finance with partying, doing drugs and all that. What do these things have to do with one another?

    PS: I had to google Big swinging dick. How do you call a female BSD?

    • I think it has simply become a cultural script that the involved parties fee;l that they have to enact, and would feel deprived if they didn’t enact. It’s like college life after “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” That kind of party lifestyle became the expectation.

      • I guess it becomes an obligation to fit in this particular line of business.
        Some have to play golf but at least playing golf is healthy!

        I had to google National Lampoon’s Animal House. This day becomes more and more educational. 🙂
        Fraternities and sororities are really something American (for me at least) I can’t see the draw and I’m so glad we don’t have any here.

  7. I’ve heard women refer to their dicks and also their balls, so I think perhaps it’s a term that crosses genders. But I don’t work in the world of high finance so I might be wrong–or off.
    The best scene in Animal House is the FOOD FIGHT scene. I replay that frequently.
    Fraternities seem to make the headlines here all too often when their pledges die or there’s a rape scandal. Never did get the culture of this.

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