Walter Kirn is a respected contemporary writer, author of novels including Thumbsucker and Up In The Air. He is also widely published in magazines, including Time, GQ, and Esquire. Kirn’s new book Blood Will Out is being promoted as the next great true crime story, right up there with In Cold Blood. I beg to differ. While it focuses on Christian Gerhartsreiter, a man of many aliases perhaps best known as Clark Rockefeller, it isn’t really the story of this German who came to the U.S. and remade himself as an American aristocrat. There is another book all about that, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal. There was even a Lifetime TV movie about Gerhartsreiter. Rather, this is the story of Kirn’s relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller and how being a writer affected the situation.
Kirn first encountered Gerhartsreiter/Rockefeller in 1998, when Kirn agrees to take a rescue dog from Montana to the latter in New York. From the beginning, Kirn admits, to himself at least, his interest in meeting a Rockefeller, both as a writer in search of characters and out of a fascination for the rich and famous. After a rough journey, Kirn delivers the disabled dog and thus begins a years-long friendship. The two men are in contact off and on for many years. In 2008, Clark Rockefeller is arrested in a child custody/kidnapping case, his real identity is discovered, and he ends up in prison. In 2011, he is charged with the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus in California. This trial took place in 2013, with Kirn in attendance. He used it an occasion to reflect on his relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller and considered the testimony of the witnesses through the lens of his own experiences. Kirn made friends with other writers at the trial and even took his own teenage daughter to court one day. He was really into it. After the guilty verdict, he visited his old friend in prison a number of times. Even after hearing all the testimony, and knowing so much about all the cons and lies, he could see how easy it was to be manipulated by him.
The strength of book Blood Will Out isn’t in psychological insights about sociopaths or forensic evidence about cold murder cases. It is really about Kirn’s relationship with this totally off the wall person and how that worked out. Like most people, Kirn generally believed what Gerhartsreiter told him about his life, maybe taking things with a grain of salt but never imagining that it was all totally fabricated. In fact, he dismisses the first reports of his friend’s false identity in 2008, until it becomes fully clear that it was all a lie. Kirn examines his thoughts and feelings, ranging the gamut from being impressed at Rockefeller’s modern art collection (which turned out to be all forged) to betrayal upon the revelation of his true identity and full-on anger at some points during the murder trial. Along the way, Kirn shares bits and pieces about his own life, including his family and divorce. He frequently refers to stories of self-invention like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, believing they inspired his friend’s efforts. This is an interesting exploration of both our fascination with celebrity and how we react when faced with someone who breaks all the rules of social convention.
Gwen Gregory is the resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She reads books the way many people watch TV.