April 4, 2014

“Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

“I was in the mood for an adventure…. I was a writer, even more importantly a writer between books, and I had a hunch I was going to meet a character.”

Thus Walter Kirn, language artist, enters the world of Clark Rockefeller, con artist. Memoir meets true crime in this fortuitous American matchup between author and criminal.

Rockefeller, born Christian Gerhartsreiter, adopted a crippled dog from the Humane Society where Kirn’s wife worked, and Kirn offered to transport the animal, curious to meet a Rockefeller.

At the time, 1998, Kirn was a magazine writer and a not yet well-known novelist. Rockefeller was a con man and not an actual Rockefeller.

“I found him instantly annoying,” Kirn writes, “a twee, diminutive hobbit of a fellow whose level of self-amusement seemed almost delusional.”

Nonetheless, they become friends of sorts. Kirn, a Princeton graduate and the son of middle-class Midwestern Mormons, was fascinated by the faux Rockefeller in a manner reminiscent of Nick Carraway’s fascination with Jay Gatsby.

Gerhartsreiter, unlike Gatsby, does not turn out to be all right in the end. 

Coming from Germany to America as a teenager, Gerhartsreiter arrived just in time for the go-go years of the 1980s. “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Kirn suspects, served as Gerhartsreiter’s assimilation cheat sheet.

In 1985, Gerhartsreiter, aka Christopher Chichester, then claiming to be a British baronet, murdered and dismembered a San Marino, Calif., man, John Sohus. Afterward, he changed geography and identity, moving to Connecticut and becoming an American blue blood. He relied on art scams and moneyed women for income. 

In 2008, he kidnapped his daughter, making national news, and was subsequently found out and arrested for the 1985 murder. 

Even after the California trial and conviction, Gerhartsreiter’s motive remained murky, but Kirn suspects it was literary. In an effort to understand, Kirn revisits Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Hitchcock’s “Rope,” and “Star Trek,” the original TV series. 

“Some people kill for love and some for money,” Kirn observes, “but Clark, I’d grown convinced, had killed for literature. To be a part of it. To live inside it.”

Kirn runs this epiphany by the assistant district attorney, but “he awarded me not a flicker of agreement, let alone comprehension.” I pity this assistant DA.

Clark, as Kirn calls him throughout, isn’t fully revealed until the trial. Kirn never stops examining how he, a professional writer, could be snookered by an amateur. “As a college English major, I’d learned the phrase, ‘suspension of disbelief,’ but with Clark you contributed belief, wiring it from your personal account into the account you held with him.”

Still, Kirn concludes, despite his artful lies, Clark “wasn’t a real artist.” He was a good liar without great talent. 

Kirn, who was once dumped by a Boston Brahmin, obliquely identified as writer Susan Minot, because he didn’t have “enough money or the right friends,” is the perfect Carrawayesque narrator to tell this tale of glitter and gullibility. This is one of the best true-crime books I’ve ever read and also one of the best memoirs. Kirn’s sentences are smart, his metaphors are apt and his ability to cobble together pieces of pop culture in new, illuminating ways is the work of a real artist.