Monday, May 05, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #124: Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

There are many kinds of writers, in almost infinite variation. Some are reporters, others are novelists, and still others are memoirists or travel writers or poets or white-paper gurus. So there's no trait that they all share, other than they string words together in a line -- nothing that unites them all.

It's thus completely slanderous to the tribe of writers to say that Walter Kirn does something absolutely stereotypical in his new book Blood Will Out: he takes the story of a charismatic con man, a chameleon who created multiple identities across decades, who burrowed successfully into the upper class of his adopted country, who committed at least one murder, who is as fascinating as any real-life person can be...and made that story entirely about Walter Kirn, novelist and article writer, and how he was duped by the con man.

But that is what Kirn does here, and there's something very typical about it: that, to a writer and intellectual, the most important question will always be "how did this person dupe me" rather than anything wider. Kirn is a fine writer, so his sentences are lovely and flowing, his paragraphs precise and carefully shaped, and his chapters thoughtful and detailed. But it is all about Kirn rather than "Clark Rockefeller" -- the man Kirn met, knew somewhat well for several years, and never suspected was actually Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German national and social parasite who spent his entire adult life trying to become everything he wasn't.

Gerhartsreiter's story could be fascinating -- "Clark Rockefeller's" could as well, if a writer wanted to distinguish them. But Kirn is not interested in Gerhartsreiter's story, except as it intercepts Kirn's -- only as it illuminates what Kirn believes and worries about and cares about, his dreams and hopes and fears, only as Gerhartsreiter fails to live up to what Kirn wanted him to be (a particular kind of character, to be used in a story). The supreme irony is that Kirn insists that he befriended Gerhartsreiter -- as much as he did; it seems that they only met a few times over a decade and were only sporadically in touch -- because he thought "Rockefeller" would make a great character for a novelist like Kirn to know. But now, when Kirn finally does write a book about Gerhartsreiter, after learning Gerhartsreiter is even more interesting that he could have guessed, Kirn entirely focuses on his own reactions and feelings, rather than making any real effort to portray Gerhartsreiter. (But, then, Gerhartsreiter is not really Rockefeller, and it was Rockefeller that Kirn cared about.)

Blood Will Out is the story of a novelist who thought he was going to exploit a rich man for raw material for a book, and instead found himself exploited for raw material for a life. That's deeply ironic, as well, but Kirn doesn't make that parallel really explicit. Instead, he throws in possibly baseless fears at the end of Blood Will Out that Gerhartsreiter would have killed him -- as he did one man, twenty years earlier -- because Kirn's material was uniquely wonderful and special and rich. This is special pleading, at best, and probably a willful denial of the real situation.

Kirn is a fine writer, so Blood Will Out is an engrossing read. But the connection that Kirn presents as the raison d'etre of the book -- his personal connection to Gerhartsreiter -- does not really exist, and Kirn hasn't found any new connection to replace it. He knew a man for years, and was completely taken in by a deception. Then he attended that man's trial for murder, and wrote a book mostly about sitting in that trial and realizing he didn't know anything important about Gerhartsreiter: to my mind, that should have been the beginning of this book, not the end.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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