Robert Goolrick, whose books explored tragedy and endurance, dies aged 73

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Robert Goolrick, a New York advertising executive whose resignation at age 54 gave him the freedom to write a heartbreaking memoir about childhood sexual abuse and other family secrets, followed by acclaimed novels about endurance in the face of suffering and tragedy, died at April 29 at a nursing facility in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was 73.

The cause was pneumonia and complications from the coronavirus, said actor and producer Bob Balaban, a friend of Mr Goolrick’s since the 1970s, when they met in a Kool-Aid commercial.

Starting with his autobiography, “The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life” (2007), in which he wrote that he was raped by his alcoholic father at age 4, then with “A Reliable Wife” ( 2009) and “Heading Out to Wonderful” (2012), bestselling dark sensual novels, Mr. Goolrick human connections that could get violent and sinister.

Virginia-born Mr. Goolrick, who largely followed the Southern Gothic style of the likes of William Faulkner, William Styron, Carson McCullers, and Pat Conroy, said his retrospective approach to storytelling gives him a modest, if never quite a more comfort, with a past that held a terrifying power over him.

More than the loss of innocence, it was the wanton destruction of innocence that thematically worried him most. “Childhood is a dangerous place,” he told USA Today. “No one is left unscathed.” But he added as a warning, pointing to his own spiral into alcoholism, cocaine addiction and self-mutilation, “What happens next, later in life, is so destructive.”

He had spent much of his adulthood masking personal fear through what, in all probability, appeared to be outward achievement. He became an executive at major New York ad agencies such as AC&R and Grey, where he worked on glossy corporate campaigns.

A droll narrator and meticulous dresser, from his John Lobb shoes to his Hermès ties, he was a frequent guest at dinner parties. “Whether he sat next to a celebrity or a plumber, he was always curious about the way people lived their lives,” said Lynn Grossman, a writer married to Balaban who described her friend’s far-reaching intellect. “If he spoke to the plumber, he could speak with authority about plumbing in 17th-century British castles.”

Director and screenwriter Paul Schrader recalled Mr. Goolrick as a “source of inspiration and companionship.” Schrader often invited his friend to movie sets and gave him an associate producer credit for “The Walker” (2007), about a young man who mentors women of the older society. “So many of those people give you credit for the money, but with Robbie it was because he was someone you could brainstorm with. He was a point of contact for feedback and ideas.”

In an essay after becoming a published author, Mr. Goolrick reflected on navigating “the complex and often terrifying interior of an outward ordinary life.” My life had been an attempt to always seem equal, and the effort had worn me out. My clothes were immaculate, my house charming and my dinners a success, but inside I felt completely dead.”

He wrote that he became increasingly dependent on gin and cocaine, roaming Manhattan for anonymous sexual encounters with men and women, and secretly cutting his body. He once cut his arms while watching the Broadway show “Dreamgirls” and noted in his memoir that the oozing purple-red blood resembled “a beautiful woman’s dark glossy lipstick.”

He was sometimes so high after a night out, he wrote, he could barely give his address to taxi drivers. And he was so oblivious to his surroundings that he was robbed five times in his own block.

An increasingly difficult colleague, Mr Goolrick, said he was “suddenly and staggeringly fired”. He was then hospitalized for months after a nervous breakdown, but left with the belief that he could become a writer, a long-held ambition. he added, was “giving to the world.”

“The End of the World as We Know It,” published by the independent house Algonquin Books, was widely and favorably reviewed — “barbed and shrewd, with a keen eye for inflicting pain,” wrote the New York Times book critic Janet Maslin. Revealing a paternal legacy of bourbon and mental illness, he painted his mother as graceful, intelligent, emotionally lacking in demonstrativeness, wallowing in her unhappiness, and prone to gloomy, alcohol-soaked statements like, “You destroy your own life and then, very gently, you destroy the lives of those around you.”

The success of Mr. Goolrick’s memoirs led to Algonquin’s publication of his first novel, which had been written before and which dozens of publishers had rejected.

‘A Reliable Wife’, praised by a Guardian book reviewer for its ‘high drama born of greed and lust’, reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, which Mr. Goolrick attributed to his bodice-riding qualities and popularity. at book clubs. Set in frozen Wisconsin in 1907, the plot revolved around a widower who sought a practical and homely mail-order bride and was given an ominous beauty instead.

“What interests me in human life is the possibility of goodness,” Mr Goolrick told the Daily Beast. “With ‘A Reliable Wife’ I wanted to make a novel in which people in difficulty are somehow redeemed through love.”

Robert Cooke Goolrick was born in Charlottesville on August 4, 1948 and grew up in Lexington, Virginia, where his father taught history at the Virginia Military Institute. He graduated with an English degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1970 and was initially interested in filmmaking with a scholarship that financed his trips to France, England and Greece.

He eventually moved into advertising, a field he once said “people have talent but no specific ambition,” and enjoyed a steady, if restless, rise as a copywriter at major corporations. He worked as a freelance writer and once published an article about his futile attempt to find the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon.

The play ends in a vivid dream in which Pynchon sends him a letter – “typed on graph paper, the paragraphs widely spaced and unindented” and ends with an existential conundrum befitting his literary target: “The world cares nothing. The world, my dear man, gives all there is.”

When he became a writer, Mr. Goolrick left New York to avoid Manhattan’s cocktail party scene and “literary freak show”. From his rented 19th-century farmhouse in Weems, Virginia, he wrote two more well-received novels, “Heading Out to Wonderful” (2012), about an illicit romance in small-town Virginia in 1948, and “Fall of Princes” (2015). ), about a Wall Street trader in the 1980s who falls victim to his debauchery.

mr. Goolrick, who never married, leaves behind a brother and a sister. He said his memoirs caused a schism among the siblings, and he received accusations from friends of his parents of embellishing or lying. Mostly, referring to the first line of “A Reliable Wife,” he replied, “The point is, all memories are fiction.”

After the publication of his memoirs, Mr. Goolrick found satisfaction in helping the many people who sought his advice on surviving childhood trauma. He often put them in touch with support groups that could offer understanding and comfort.

“When I was young I always had a nightmare,” Mr Goolrick told interviewer Skip Prichard. “And the nightmare was that something was terribly wrong with me, something hurt. And I would open my mouth to tell my mom or anyone around that something was wrong with me, and nothing would come out. I was stupid. By writing I have found a way to break through that stupidity and find a voice.”

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