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Book review

‘Blood Will Out’ by Walter Kirn

John Ueland for the boston globe

While living under the pseudonyms Christopher Chichester and Clark Rockefeller, Christian Gerhartsreiter perfected the art of making people believe he was a member of the aristocracy by dressing like an Andover headmaster and talking like Thurston Howell III. Gerhartsreiter committed such dastardly deeds — Kidnapping! Theft! Fraud! Spousal abuse! — that his subsequent murder conviction wasn’t altogether shocking.

Published in 2011, “The Man In the Rockefeller Suit,” among the world’s most discomfiting beach reads, details the outlandish exploits of the ersatz blueblood and con artist extraordinaire. Reading Mark Seal’s linear account of Gerhartsreiter’s story proved as queasily entertaining as watching a multivehicle pileup among gas tankers, clown cars, and a truck full of chickens.

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All the spills and thrills had the unintended effect of obscuring the fact that Gerhartsreiter’s adventures were just as sinister as they were preposterous; he did, after all, murder one person and is suspected of killing at least one other.

“Blood Will Out,” a new memoir from journalist and novelist Walter Kirn — among the many apparently sensible people Gerhartsreiter fooled — makes the darkness visible. Kirn’s account of his friendship with this strange and terrible man cuts through the frippery of Gerhartsreiter’s outrageous affectations to reveal the Lovecraftian nightmare hiding beneath the J. Press blazer. “Blood Will Out” is a wise, deeply frightening, and potentially sleep-disrupting read, one best avoided while stuck at home alone.

Kirn, most famous for his novel-turned-film “Up in the Air,” met the man he thought was Clark Rockefeller after agreeing to drive a semi-paralyzed Gordon setter Gerhartsreiter was adopting from a couple in Montana, where Kirn and the dog lived, to Gerhartsreiter’s Manhattan apartment.

Kirn understands that he went to such lengths because he wanted to be accepted by the gentry; he recalls “meeting a few people like [Rockefeller] in college at Princeton — pedigreed, boastful, overschooled eccentrics who spoke like cousins of Katherine Hepburn — but I’d been raised in rural Minnesota . . . and I’d never succeeded in getting close to them.”

Although Gerhartsreiter shorts Kirn on travel expenses, the pair’s friendship evolves into routine phone conversations and occasional visits involving trips to art galleries and exclusive members-only social clubs — Kirn is far from alone in his desire to get close to an apparent scion of an eminent American family.

Kirn’s account of his friendship with this strange and terrible man cuts through the frippery of Gerhartsreiter’s outrageous affectations to reveal the Lovecraftian nightmare hiding beneath the J. Press blazer.

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Their bond strengthens after both divorce. When Gerhartsreiter makes national news for kidnapping his daughter, is exposed as an impostor, and subsequently charged with killing the son of a former landlord, it rattles Kirn so badly that he decides to attend Gerhartsreiter’s murder trial in Los Angeles and write a book about it.

Kirn uses the trial to frame the story of their friendship. “[I] imagined I understood him,” he writes, reflecting on the sensation of reuniting with a long-lost pal in a courtroom. “Events had proved me wrong.”

Each day, Kirn observes court proceedings and the man he thought he knew. He talks to witnesses and journalists, pushes them for information about Gerhartsreiter, and develops new theories about his actions, motives, and artistic influences.

Gerhartsreiter, you see, was fond of making cultural allusions with his crimes, like adopting the Social Security number of David Berkowitz, the serial killer Son of Sam. These insights deepen Kirn’s understanding of Gerhartsreiter, as well as the reader’s horror upon discovering the full extent of his malevolent panache.

Kirn’s publisher is touting “Blood Will Out” as this generation’s “In Cold Blood.” The comparison isn’t quite accurate: Kirn is almost as preoccupied with his own character flaws as he is with Gerhartsreiter’s fatal ones. “I felt a sense of recognition,” he writes. “The careful [personality] edits and revisions practiced by the ambitious German . . . resembled literary operations that I performed daily at my desk.”

The writer’s affinity with the murderous fraud greatly benefits his book, as does his superhuman willingness to spelunk into the grimy depths of Gerhartsreiter’s psyche.

Kirn reveals startling insights into Gerhartsreiter’s crimes. To wit, Kirn spends a month watching noir films, Gerhartsreiter’s favorite genre, an event he calls “the 2013 Clark Rockefeller Film Festival.” In a few short pages, he offers an elegant critical analysis of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, parses the effect of their dark sensibilities on Gerhartsreiter’s actions, and draws in Friedrich Nietzche, Clarence Darrow, and the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo.

This is lovely stuff, exceedingly well-written, beautifully conceived, and thoroughly distressing.

At a few points, the book suffers from the same literary sensibility that makes it exceptional; one sometimes wishes Kirn didn’t use quite so many metaphors. (“From a purely epistemological standpoint, 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.” Oh, really?)

His desire to ascribe Gerhartsreiter’s quirks to his country of origin can be similarly wearying — are the Nazis really responsible for him, too? But this is a very small price to pay for so many graceful insights into such a flamboyant enigma. In the end, Kirn manages to transform his personal account of one of this century’s most aberrant personalities into a vessel bearing universal truths about narrative, evil, and the American Dream itself.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson @gmail.com.
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