At some point, everyone does something that they realize isn't a great idea, but will likely make for a great story. Walter Kirn, the Montana-based author of novels including Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, admits this motivation at the start of his new nonfiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. In the late '90s, Kirn took on the task of delivering a disabled dog from his home in Livingston to a man in New York, who called himself Clark Rockefeller. "He would delight me with comic songs and dog menus and access to a circle I'd thought closed to me," Kirn writes, "and I would repay him with the indulgent loyalty that writers reserve for their favorite characters, the ones, it's said, we can't make up."
Clark Rockefeller is not, of course, really a Rockefeller, which came to light in 2008 when he abducted his daughter in a custody dispute. Rockefeller was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in Germany in 1961, and moved to America as a young man. He assumed several aliases, claimed to be everything from British royalty to an international banker, and charmed nearly everyone he met. In 2009, he was convicted for the 1985 murder of the son of his landlady; he likely killed the man's wife, too, but her body has never been found. Rockefeller has maintained his innocence throughout.
Plenty of articles and books have been written about Rockefeller. Lifetime made a TV movie about him in 2010, and a Fox Searchlight film is in development. Many have tried to dissect what goes on in the mind of this compulsive liar and master manipulator; during the trial, psychiatrists diagnosed him with delusional and narcissistic personality disorders. Kirn (who still refers to the con man as Clark Rockefeller, so I will, as well) takes the literary approach, seeing Rockefeller's machinations as inspired by plots of films and books, like The Talented Mr. Ripley. "Some people kill for love and some for money, but Clark, I'd grown convinced, had killed for literature. To be a part of it. To live inside it." Clark leeches knowledge from everyone, even repurposing Kirn's stories about his Livingston-area ranch to impress people. Kirn speculates that Rockefeller might have contemplated murdering him, too.
Encountering such a intriguing fraud brings up questions about truth and about our willingness to believe, which Kirn dissects masterfully. Along the way, his narrative collects all sorts of trivia and tidbits. He zooms in to subtle changes in people's faces, out to an overview of an entire city or region, or pauses for self-consideration, without tripping up.
Blood is an intense read and not soon forgotten. And yet, it's more frustrating than Kirn's previous nonfiction book, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, which details his days attending Princeton on scholarship and becoming disillusioned with the education system. In Meritocracy, it's easy to root for an underdog from Minnesota dealing with snooty rich people.
Blood isn't necessarily so satisfying, in part because Kirn isn't much of an underdog anymore. His novels have been adapted into major films and he name-drops George Clooney. In Blood, he's also still frustrated that he fell for Rockefeller's dupe. As the reader with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to be annoyed with him for falling for it, too. The signs were all therefrom the beginning of their friendship, Rockefeller tells suspiciously incredible stories and never picks up a check; he later claims to have George W. Bush's personal phone number. But Kirn, who's written before about his own habit of latching onto rich people for access to high society, was suckered. His pathological need to strive ever higher is what undoes him. He berates himself for it frequently in the book. "I'd bowed to a tinfoil prince," he says.
Kirn also presents himself as a progressive, enlightened type, and I appreciate that he calls out courtroom misogyny during Rockefeller's trial, but his other descriptions give away an antiquated worldview. In Kirn's stories, wealthy white men are initiators of action, self-actualized players, while everyone else is window dressing. He often describes women according to their attractiveness, like "bottle blonde" and "leggy," even when it's not relevant to the narrative. And of the downtown Los Angeles jurors in the case, he says, "The euphemism that sprang to mind was 'urban,'" which is a condescending-at-best way to say that they were people of color from rough neighborhoods.
Kirn's apparent hubris still hasn't been fatal, either in real life or to his storytelling, which is top-notch even when it's pretentious. Clark Rockefeller wreaked havoc on many people's lives, including Kirn's, but the writer certainly got a great story out of the deal.
Walter Kirn reads from Blood Will Out at Shakespeare and Co. Tue., March 18, at 7 PM.