Walter Kirn’s ‘Blood Will Out’ shares the author’s personal brush with a murderer

Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out.
Tod Goldberg

Five stars

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade By Walter Kirn, $26.

Walter Kirn, be it in fiction or nonfiction, has always possessed a keen eye for the small details of American life that end up crushing us. In his memoir Lost in the Meritocracy, he detailed the peripatetic path he took through personality and education, eventually landing at Princeton, where he constantly recreated himself to fit the situation—as a low-grade charlatan, in effect, but one who escaped with his charm and wits intact, and more than a little regret. He wasn’t Jay Gatsby and his series of successful gestures, nor even Ferris Bueller; he just happened to realize earlier than most that everything in the world was a scheme if you could figure out how to game it.

And yet, Kirn is just as susceptible to the dodge, it turns out, when he becomes friendly with Clark Rockefeller, a man who was not a Rockefeller, and not even a Clark. “It felt like a noble gesture at the time, and I was in the mood for adventure,” Kirn writes at the beginning of his masterful new memoir Blood Will Out. It’s a clear allusion to the aforementioned Mr. Gatsby and his chronicler Nick Carroway, but the difference here is that this is a true story, and Walter Kirn is a man we trust.

That’s not to say we can’t be unreliable narrators in our own lives. Here, though, Kirn shines the light not just on the strange man he believes to be part of the very upper crust of American life, a link to our robber-baron past, but also on his desire to be near him. “Instead of shrinking from his loopy stories,” he writes. “I helped him refine them by teasing out their details and nudging them toward heightened vividness.”

The man who isn’t a Rockefeller is, in fact, a German-born con man and murderer named Christian Gerhartsreiter, a would-be Tom Ripley, without the good sense to stay out of the reach of the police. He abducts his own daughter, opening Pandora’s box and revealing far more than anyone might have expected, least of all Kirn, who sits through his murder trial and even goes back and interviews Gerhartsreiter in prison: “Involving yourself in the life of a great liar, once you understand that he’s a liar but go on seeking the truth from him, is a swan dive through a mirror into a whirlpool.” Blood Will Out is Kirn’s mirror and whirlpool—a reflection of the man he was, the man who was duped and the swirling madness that only comes from one’s unwitting proximity to evil.

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