Robert Goolrick, a New York advertising executive whose firing at 54 liberated him to write a lacerating memoir of childhood sexual abuse and other family secrets, followed by acclaimed novels about endurance in the face of suffering and tragedy, died April 29 at a nursing center in Lynchburg, Va. He was 73.
The cause was pneumonia and complications from the coronavirus, said the actor and producer Bob Balaban, a friend of Mr. Goolrick’s since the 1970s, when they met on 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 of being raped at 4 by his alcoholic father, then with “A Reliable Wife” (2009) and “Heading Out to Wonderful” (2012), best-selling and darkly sensual novels, Mr. Goolrick explored human connections that could turn violent and lurid.
Following to a large degree in the Southern gothic vein of William Faulkner, William Styron, Carson McCullers and Pat Conroy, among others, the Virginia-born Mr. Goolrick said he found through his retrospective approach to storytelling a modest reckoning, if never quite a fuller solace, with a past that retained a frightening power over him.
More than the loss of innocence, it was the wanton destruction of innocence that most concerned him thematically. “Childhood is a dangerous place,” he told USA Today. “No one leaves unscarred." But he added as a caveat, noting his own spiral into alcoholism, cocaine addiction and self-mutilation: "It’s what happens after that, later in life, that is so destructive.”
He had spent much of his adulthood masking personal anguish through what, by all accounts, appeared to be outward achievement. He became an executive at major New York advertising firms such as AC&R and Grey, where he worked on glossy corporate campaigns.
A droll raconteur and meticulous dresser from his John Lobb shoes to his Hermès ties, he was much in demand as a dinner-party guest. “Whether he was seated 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 and who described her friend’s far-ranging intellect. "If he was speaking 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 on film sets and gave him an associate producer credit on “The Walker” (2007), about a young man who escorts older society women. “So many of those people you give credits for the money, but with Robbie, it was because he was someone you could brainstorm with. He was a go-to person for feedback and ideas.”
In an essay after he became a published author, Mr. Goolrick reflected on navigating “the complex and often terrifying interior of an outwardly ordinary life. My life had been an effort to appear to be right at all times, and the effort had exhausted me. My clothes were immaculate, my house charming, and my dinner parties a success, yet inside I felt completely dead.”
He wrote that he increasingly relied on gin and cocaine, prowled Manhattan for anonymous sexual encounters with men and women, and furtively cut his body. He once slit his arms while watching the Broadway show “Dreamgirls,” observing in his memoir that the seeping purple-red blood resembled “the dark glossy lipstick of a beautiful woman.”
He was at times so high after a night out, he wrote, he could barely pronounce his street address to cabdrivers. And he was so unaware of his surroundings, he was mugged five times on his own block.
An increasingly difficult colleague, Mr. Goolrick said he was “suddenly and vertiginously fired." He was subsequently institutionalized for months following a nervous breakdown, but he left with the conviction that he could become a writer, a long-held ambition. Writing, 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 positively reviewed — "barbed and canny, with a sharp eye for the infliction of pain,” New York Times book critic Janet Maslin wrote. He unveiled a paternal heritage of bourbon and mental illness and painted his mother as elegant, intelligent, emotionally undemonstrative, wallowing in her unhappiness and prone to bleak, alcohol-infused declarations like, “You wreck your own life and then, very gently, you wreck the lives of those around you.”
The success of Mr. Goolrick’s memoir led to the publication by Algonquin of his first novel, which had been written earlier and which dozens of publishers had turned down.
“A Reliable Wife,” praised by a Guardian book critic for its “high drama evolving out of avarice and lust,” summited the New York Times bestseller list, which Mr. Goolrick attributed to its bodice-ripping qualities and popularity among book clubs. The plot, set in frostbitten Wisconsin in 1907, was about a widower seeking a practical and homely mail-order bride and instead getting an ominous beauty.
“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 troubled people are somehow redeemed by love.”
Robert Cooke Goolrick was born in Charlottesville on Aug. 4, 1948, and grew up in Lexington, Va., where his father taught history at the Virginia Military Institute. He graduated in 1970 with an English degree from Johns Hopkins University and initially pursued an interest in filmmaking on a fellowship that funded his travels to France, England and Greece.
He eventually entered advertising, a field that he once said “takes people who have talent but no specific ambition,” and enjoyed a steady if restless rise as a copywriter at major firms. He moonlighted as a freelance writer, once publishing an article about his futile attempt to locate the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon.
The piece ends in a vivid dream in which Pynchon sends him a letter — “typed on graph paper, the paragraphs widely spaced and not indented” and concludes with an existential riddle befitting his literary target: “The world gives nothing. The world, my dear man, gives all there is.”
As he became a writer, Mr. Goolrick left New York to avoid the cocktail party scene and "literary freak show” of Manhattan. From his rented 19th-century farmhouse in Weems, Va., he wrote two more well-received novels, “Heading Out to Wonderful” (2012), about an illicit romance in 1948 small-town Virginia, and “The Fall of Princes” (2015), about a Wall Street trader in the 1980s who falls victim to his debauchery.
Mr. Goolrick, who never married, is survived by a brother and a sister. He said his memoir caused a schism among the siblings, and he drew accusations from his parents’ friends of embellishing or lying. He usually replied citing the first line of “A Reliable Wife": “The thing is, all memory is fiction.”
After the publication of his memoir, Mr. Goolrick found satisfaction in offering help to 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 used to have a nightmare all the time," Mr. Goolrick told interviewer Skip Prichard. "And the nightmare was that there was something terribly wrong with me, something hurt. And I would open my mouth to tell my mother or whoever was around that something was wrong with me, and nothing would come out. I was mute. In writing, I found a way to break that muteness and to find a voice.”