by Elisabeth Donnelly)
In Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out, the writer and journalist (his fiction includes Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, and he’s a familiar byline in publications from GQ to The New Republic) writes about his 15-year friendship with a man who he knew as Clark Rockefeller, a charming eccentric from the wrong side of the fabled American dynasty. Now, for people with long memories of notorious true crime cases, Rockefeller was really Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a con artist of many names and many aliases who created a whole American life out of nothing and is now serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of a Californian couple.
Rockefeller had first made headlines in 2008, when he went on the lam with his daughter after a bitter custody battle. Initially, his name was why it was front-page news in The Boston Globe. After a four-day manhunt, the FBI found him — and found out that he was, in Kirn’s words, “the most prodigious serial impostor in recent history.” Rockefeller’s fingerprints, which revealed his real identity, linked him to a cold case murder from 1985 that, as “Christopher Chichester,” he was wanted for questioning.
Blood Will Out is a sharp meditation on Kirn’s friendship with Rockefeller, Rockefeller’s trial and eventual conviction, and the nature of belief in this day and age. Kirn ably leads the reader from his farm in Montana to a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles to Rockefeller’s various East Coast haunts: the Boston Athenaeum, a ramshackle house in Cornish, New Hampshire. Throughout the story, Kirn weaves a tale of friendship that emerged because each guy wanted something from the other. Rockefeller, a dog-loving eccentric, wanted Kirn to deliver a disabled dog that he was adopting named Shelby from the Midwest to his home in New York.
With the predatory clarity of the financially impoverished writer who needs material, Kirn saw a potential story: “A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would’ve thought if he was wiser. A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.”
Brio aside, once Kirn meets Rockefeller he takes it back, deciding not to write about him. Rockefeller is the consummate outsider, an exiled Rockefeller with an apartment full of abstract art (all fakes), and Kirn, despite his Princeton/Oxford pedigree, sees himself as a mimic pretending to belong to the American East Coast aristocracy (see Kirn’s book Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever), not there to make friends, per se. Yet once Rockefeller is revealed to be a murderer and probably a sociopath, Kirn takes that vow back, obviously.
The writer places Rockefeller in a literary history of shape-shifting tricksters who wrestle with the American dream — Jay Gatsby, anyone? — from Herman Meville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. He wheedles out links and connections between Rockefeller’s love of film noir, like Alfred Hitchcock’s single-take retelling of Leopold and Loeb, Rope, and the influences that those stories had on Rockefeller’s mien and hauteur. Rope, Kirn theorizes, is very likely to have been the model for the murder of John Sohus.
In more naïve moments, I wonder sometimes whether technology has developed to the point that life is quite difficult for the con artist in this day and age. One example: I spent a dinner party dumbfounded at my friend’s story of her aunt, an immigrant in New York City who reinvented herself as exiled Russian aristocrat in the ’50s, a simple lie that brought her entree into New York’s high society. It seems like a harder scheme to pull off these days; and yet, the success of something like MTV’s Catfish, where a savvy New Yorker is sentenced to a season in perdition driving around rural America, trying to piece together the fallout from people’s online relationships, proves one thing: the human capability for gullibility is evergreen, even if the Internet can provide more clues than the average person is used to finding.
Kirn is hard on himself: in this 15-year period he’s all over the place, hapless and messy as a person, which makes him the perfect mark, willing to fall for Rockefeller’s lies and flattery, the most outrageous coming when the heir gave him “George Bush’s phone number” in order to settle some tax problems. (This after saying that Britney Spears had just visited Rockefeller’s New Hampshire getaway.) He is hard on Rockefeller, putting the pieces together to realize that a perceived harmless weirdo friend was, likely, far more dangerous then he let on. The ironies pile up, the worst being that Rockefeller was a failed screenwriter in Los Angeles who found financial success as a “freelance central banker” in New York, as New York is far friendlier to stories of reinvention. Kirn notes, correctly, that “one reason the Internet fosters conspiracy theories is that its system of branching, crossing tunnels is shaped like paranoid reasoning itself.”
By the end of Blood Will Out, the reader is feeling a little paranoid as well — Kirn does such a fascinating job threading the needle of what his friendship with Rockefeller meant, and how Rockefeller was basically a walking shapeshifter of a man, ready to slip into someone else’s skin like an alien trying on a new form, that it’s hard not to see the world as full of potential predators ready to feast on the naïve. A book that shifts the way you see the world, if only for a minute, is a book that’s worth your time, and Blood Will Out is a wonderfully written explication from a weary tower of lies; lies that expose the layers of cons, hope, faith, and trust that were behind one man’s American dream.