The Storytellers

Walter Kirn gets taken in by a con man.

Illustration by Danica Novgorodoff.

Illustration by Danica Novgorodoff

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible,” wrote Janet Malcolm in her 1990 tract, The Journalist and the Murderer. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The accomplished journalist and novelist Walter Kirn, in his fascinating writerly apologia, Blood Will Out, begins under a similar assumption. It’s 1998, and by sheer chance, Kirn is thrown into the orbit of an eccentric named Clark Rockefeller—a peevish, slender man with an astonishing art collection and an autistically impressive recall of historical facts and “persons.” Even before meeting Rockefeller in the flesh, the writer in Kirn wakes up; he sniffs a book idea. Rockefeller is a ready-made “character,” one whom Kirn would be “guilty of professional malpractice” if he did not get to know.

A friendship begins between Kirn and Rockefeller, under the terms Malcolm describes—with a somewhat abashed but cheerful Kirn ready to juice some art out of a real person. But the story of Blood Will Out is one of cosmic ironies and jaw-dropping reversals. By the end of it, writer-subject relationship has been turned on its head, leaving Kirn’s sense of his own judgment obliterated and his friend “Clark” in jail for murder. 

We now know that Clark Rockefeller was an alias, the invention of a German immigrant named Christian Gerhartsreiter, who emigrated from nowheresville Germany as a teen, and thereafter adopted many identities before reincarnating himself as the spurned child of a famous American family. Back at first flush, Kirn had no idea how right he was: Clark Rockefeller was a ready-made character. The book begins with Kirn’s darkly amusing trip cross-country with a paraplegic dog, Shelby, whom Rockefeller is anxious to adopt. Kirn has volunteered to drive Shelby from Montana to Rockefeller in New York City. Given the man’s last name, Kirn expects that his promised fee for delivering the dog will be tidy. That, plus he feels bad about accidently running over one of his wife’s foster dogs in the driveway of his ranch. Eventually, Kirn meets up with Rockefeller in Manhattan. They have dinner in the Sky Club, where everybody else seems as impressed with Rockefeller as he is with himself. The fee for delivering Shelby, in fact, is minuscule.

Reading Blood Will Out, one begins to understand how so many people were duped by Clark Rockefeller. All the imposter needs is some kind of initial agreement that he is who he says he is; thereafter, consensus builds via a network of human relationships. In other words, barring any outrageous evidence to the contrary, people tend to believe one another. And then those people are believed by more people.

But even unearthing lies might not change a victim’s mind. Kirn writes movingly on why the victim of a fraud like Clark Rockefeller suspends disbelief. “What is it in people,” asks Kirn, “or just in people like me, that would rather let a lie go by, would rather wish it away or minimize it, than point it out and cause the liar embarrassment?” As the 15-year friendship goes on, there are many inconsistencies to Rockefeller’s stories, but Kirn ignores them. During a visit to Rockefeller’s gothically unfinished country home in New Hampshire in 2002, Rockefeller explains away a half-dozen implausibilities; Kirn makes not a peep.

Finally one night, when Rockefeller has once again “forgotten” his wallet when the dinner bill arrives, Kirn resolves to give up the unrewarding friendship. He hates the guy, he realizes. He is a “chirping, pedantic, benumbing little prick.” Kirn befriended him out of some kind of writerly interest, and then, losing courage to make the planned work of art, has gotten nothing out of it but a couple of seltzers at the Lotos Club and the increasingly thin satisfaction of being associated with a Rockefeller. But just as soon as Kirn pulls away, Rockefeller goes through a divorce and ropes Kirn, who is by then also divorced, into being his confidante once again.

The truth about Rockefeller—revealed in the headlines in 2008—shocks Kirn. Not only because a man he’d considered a friend turns out to be fraud, but because Kirn can now see the ways in which he remained willfully blind to the sham. “What a perfect mark I’d been,” Kirn laments. “Rationalizing, justifying, imagining. I’d worked as hard at being conned by him as he had at conning me. I wasn’t a victim; I was a collaborator.” Kirn’s book turns angry along with its narrator and becomes more straightforwardly a takedown—a mildly paranoid one, in the final pages of which Kirn imagines himself as Rockefeller’s potential murder victim.

What makes Blood Will Out so absorbing is its teller more than its subject. Kirn’s persona is captivating—funny, pissed off, highly literate, and self-searching. He’s also an elegant, classic writer. He compares the lame dog Shelby’s faint heartbeat to “a grasshopper jumping inside a paper bag”; then he weeps when she refuses to drink. His is the kind of voice you wish you had narrating your day-to-day life, finding comedy in its corners and meaning in its blunders.

Walter Kirn
Walter Kirn

Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan

What new material Kirn lends to this well-trod case can only be described as a literary explication of Clark Rockefeller’s life. By studying works of literature and film noir that he knew Rockefeller to have admired, Kirn finds Rockefeller’s “narrative DNA” in the 1985 murder of John Sohus, for which Rockefeller was convicted in 2013. Kirn reads allusions to Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock in the Sohus crime scene. Rockefeller himself, Kirn tells us, is a terrifyingly postmodern imitation of an imitation—“impeccably derivative,” borrowing his affect from characters like Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island. And at each step, Kirn is there to detail the ways in which he, too, is unreliable, guilty, gullible, or suffering from “promiscuous readiness”—a readiness to believe, to dig for material, to make alliances. Again and again, Kirn honestly examines his own motivations, which—to the writer and the thinking man or woman—are endlessly complex, and are, finally, the most elusive subject of all. 

I guess this is where I ought to say that I recently wrote a novel that borrowed several details from Clark Rockefeller’s over-the-top life. I never hoped to be associated with the “real” Clark Rockefeller, and, like Kirn, I rue the association. I have little interest in murderers, and in light of his recent conviction, I am disappointed in Rockefeller for his psychopathologies on a literary level. That is to say, like Kirn, I am always trying to figure out how I can yank fiction out of life. Like Kirn—like all writers—I am “promiscuously ready” to steal anything, given the chance: secrets once told, sweet things my kids said in moments of trust. All of it. Into the fictional fire!

Naturally, the journalist, whom Kirn calls the “professional truth seeker,” has a far more complex relationship with his real-world material than the novelist, but one does not get into the writing profession without the instinct to describe the “real world.” Reading Blood Will Out, I kept thinking of a writer whose profiles appeared in The New Yorker long before Kirn’s—Joseph Mitchell, whose masterwork, Joe Gould’s Secret, was about a different writer meeting a different fraud in a very different New York. In the early 1940s, Mitchell became friendly with a subject who fooled him—a bohemian who claimed to be compiling an oral history of America—and in so doing both exhausted himself and gained a despairing vision of his own self-deception and grandiosity. In the best writers, the outward-reaching interest in the “found subject” leads back at a hairpin to some uncomfortable inner recognition that the writer has journeyed very far to see; he comes home half-dead.

Kirn’s book on lies, writing, and murder reaches both outward and inward. It’s a portrait of a now-famous imposter, as well as a colorful blow-by-blow of his murder trial. It’s also a lamentation about what it feels like to be screwed over. It’s such an honest book that I feel Kirn is finally too hard on himself for believing Rockefeller—Kirn is a writer, after all, and he has to follow the story before it even takes shape as a story. Joseph Mitchell once commented that, because of his profession, he had “been tortured by some of the fanciest ear-benders in the world,” and that he had “long since lost the ability to detect insanity.” Perhaps Kirn’s good faith in Rockefeller had a similar root. Add the highly readable, intricately told Blood Will Out to the list of great books about the dizzying tensions of the writing life and the maddening difficulty of getting at the truth.

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn. Liveright.

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