BLOOD WILL OUT: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, by Walter Kirn. Liveright, 352 pp., $25.95.
Walter Kirn's new profile of the serial liar and convicted murderer known as Clark Rockefeller is no ordinary work of true crime and literary journalism.
"Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade" is the chronicle of Kirn's ill-fated friendship with the con man who is now serving a life sentence. And it's surely one of the most honest, compelling and strange books about the relationship between a writer and his subject ever penned by an American scribe.
Kirn is a magazine writer and author of novels such as "Up in the Air" and "Thumbsucker." But he was an insecure and not especially successful writer when he first met "Clark" in 1998. The faux Rockefeller was a preppy bon vivant who claimed to be estranged from his famous family. A mutual friend asked Kirn to do Clark a favor -- deliver a semi-paralyzed dog from Montana, where Kirn was living, to Clark's home in Manhattan.
Unbeknownst to Kirn, Clark Rockefeller was the latest in a series of identities adopted by the German immigrant Christian Gerhartsreiter. As Clark, Gerhartsreiter hid his Bavarian roots behind a genteel, patrician accent and stories of his jet-setting lifestyle. Kirn, a son of working-class Midwesterners, was smitten. Like many an ambitious writer, he thought the charismatic and odd Clark might make a good character for a magazine article or even a novel.
"A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing," Kirn writes. "A writer turns his life into material, and if you're in his life, he uses yours too."
Clark Rockefeller's tales were as big as his name. He claimed to have "the key" that opened every door at Rockefeller Center in New York. He said he was friends with J.D. Salinger, and lured Kirn to New England with the possibility of meeting the famous writer (who, of course, never materialized). Kirn stayed friends with Rockefeller even after he pulled off the classic cheapskate ploy of inviting Kirn to a restaurant for a meal and then, saying he forgot his wallet, forcing Kirn to pick up the tab.
You'd think a journalist wouldn't buy this shtick, but Rockefeller managed to keep Kirn off balance by making use of a quality he later reveals is the key to fooling anyone: "Vanity, vanity, vanity."
Kirn offers a nuanced and less-than-flattering description of himself as a man almost asking to be duped -- a flawed striver at the mercy of his desires, marrying and dating women decades younger, hungry to be "invited back" into Rockefeller's elite circle.
It's only in 2008, when Rockefeller is thrust into the national news after abducting his daughter during a custody visit, that the full scope of his lies are made undeniably clear to Kirn and everyone who knew him.
"It sounds like your friend was a phony, Walt," says the writer's mother, who seems to have known all along.
Gerhartsreiter was, in fact, the son of working-class people. In the United States he used his Rockefeller persona to marry into wealth and set up a scheme to sell bogus art. Once his face is broadcast on television, people across the country begin to remember and recount their meetings with him. Several place him at the scene of an unsolved murder of a man in the Los Angeles suburbs, and soon he is facing charges.
The trial of Gerhartsreiter for the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus brings Kirn back into contact with his old friend. In court, one witness after another recounts Rockefeller's lies, and for Kirn, it's as if he is waking from a dream. What's more, he works independently to further unravel Rockefeller's schemes and stories, and finds in them chilling references to books, films and television: classic film noir, "Star Trek," Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley."
Kirn and the other journalists covering the trial are convinced, at first, that the garrulous Gerhartsreiter will beat the murder rap. But the trial itself is a test of wills between assorted witnesses, defense attorneys and a truly able prosecutor.
The ending of "Blood Will Out" is at once deeply ambiguous and deeply satisfying. By then, Kirn has looked into the eyes of a cruel, empty man -- and learned a lot about himself in the process.