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

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Robert Goolrick, a New York publicist whose layoff at 54 freed him to write a harrowing memoir about 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 home in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was 73 years old.

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

Starting with his autobiography, “The end of the world as we know it: Scenes from a life” (2007), in which he recounts having been raped at the age of 4 by his alcoholic father, then with “A reliable woman” ( 2009) and “Heading Out to Wonderful” (2012), bestselling and darkly sensual novels, Mr. Goolrick explored human relationships that could turn violent and sinister.

Following in large measure the Southern Gothic vein of William Faulkner, William Styron, Carson McCullers and Pat Conroy, among others, Virginia-born Mr. Goolrick said he found through his retrospective approach to storytelling a a modest account, if not altogether a more complete solace, with a past which 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 comes out unscathed.” But he cautioned, noting his own spiral into alcoholism, cocaine addiction and self-harm: “It’s what happens after that, later in life, that’s so destructive. “

He had spent much of his adulthood masking his personal angst through what, by all accounts, seemed like an outward realization. He became an executive at major New York advertising agencies such as AC&R and Grey, where he worked on glossy ad campaigns.

A funny storyteller and meticulous dresser from his John Lobb shoes to his Hermès ties, he was in great demand as a dinner guest. “Whether he was sitting next to a celebrity or a plumber, he was always curious about how people lived their lives,” said Lynn Grossman, a writer married to Balaban who described the intellect of his friend. “If he spoke to the plumber, he could speak with authority about plumbing in seventeenth-century British castles.”

Director and screenwriter Paul Schrader remembered Mr Goolrick as an “inspiration and companion”. Schrader often invited his friend to film sets and gave him an associate producer credit on “The Walker” (2007), about a young man who escorts older society women. “There are so many people you give credit to for the money, but with Robbie it was because he was someone you could think with. He was a go-to person 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 outwardly ordinary life. My life had been an effort to always appear to be right, and that effort had exhausted me. My clothes were spotless, my house lovely, and my dinners successful, but 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 stealthily cut his body. He once slit his arms while watching the Broadway show “Dreamgirls”, observing in his memoir that the oozing purple-red blood resembled “a beautiful woman’s dark, glossy lipstick”.

He was sometimes so stoned after a party, he wrote, that he could barely pronounce his address to taxi drivers. And he was so oblivious to his surroundings that he was mugged five times in his own neighborhood.

An increasingly difficult colleague, Mr. Goolrick says he is “brutally and vertiginously fired”. He was subsequently interned for months following a nervous breakdown, but he left with the conviction that he could become a writer, a long-held ambition. he added, it was “giving to the world”.

“The End of the World as We Know It,” published by independent house Algonquin Books, has been widely and positively reviewed – “barbed and cunning, with an eye sharpened to inflict pain,” wrote the book reviewer of the New York Times, Janet Maslin. He unveiled a paternal heritage of bourbon and mental illness and portrayed his mother as elegant, intelligent, emotionally undemonstrative, wallowing in her misfortune and prone to dark, boozy statements like, “You destroy your own life and then, very gently you are destroying the lives of those around you.

The success of Mr. Goolrick’s memoir led to Algonquin’s publication 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 reviewer for its “drama evolving from greed and lust,” topped the New York Times bestseller list, which Mr. Goolrick attributed to her bodice qualities and her popularity among book clubs. The plot, set in frozen Wisconsin in 1907, is about a widower looking for a practical and warm mail-order bride who instead obtains an eerie beauty.

“What interests me in human life is the possibility of good,” Mr Goolrick told The Daily Beast. “With ‘A Reliable Wife’, I wanted to make a novel in which people in difficulty are somehow redeemed by 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 in 1970 with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University and first became interested in film thanks to a scholarship that funded his travels to France, England and Greece.

He eventually entered advertising, a field which he says “takes people who have talent but no specific ambition”, and enjoyed a steady but checkered rise as a copywriter at major corporations. He moonlighted as a freelance writer, once publishing an article about his vain attempt to locate reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon.

The play ends with a gripping dream in which Pynchon sends her a letter — “typed on squared paper, the paragraphs widely spaced and unindented” and concludes with an existential riddle worthy of its literary target: “The world gives nothing. The world, my dear, gives all there is.

As he became a writer, Mr. Goolrick left New York to avoid Manhattan’s cocktail scene and “literary freak show.” From his 19th-century rented farmhouse in Weems, Virginia, he wrote two other 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 fell victim to his debauchery.

Mr. Goolrick, who never married, is survived by one brother and one sister. He said his memoir caused a schism among the siblings and he was accused by his parents’ friends of embellishing or lying. He would usually respond by quoting the first line of “A Reliable Wife”: “The fact 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 connected them with support groups that could offer understanding and comfort.

“When I was young, I had nightmares 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 opened my mouth to tell my mother or whoever was around that something was wrong with me , and nothing came out. I was mute. In writing, I found a way to break that muteness and find a voice.