In 1998, the writer Walter Kirn agreed to drive a crippled dog from Montana to New York as a favor to a man he had never met. That seems like a strangely extravagant gesture of kindness until you learn the man's name, which vibrates now, as it must have then, with money, with history: Clark Rockefeller. The minute you're rich, people start giving you things for free.
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Soon Kirn and Rockefeller became friends, dining together in the hushed private clubs of Manhattan, examining Rockefeller's collection of Motherwells and Rothkos, trading the names of their acquaintances like boys with baseball cards. They talked on the phone. Kirn met Rockefeller's wife. The oddities of Rockefeller's personality — his outlandish stories about hosting Britney Spears and Helmut Kohl at his summer house, his "Star Trek" fan fiction, his banal paranoias about China — Kirn was willing to attribute to the deforming effects of his new friend's exalted upbringing.
In his candid, engrossing new book, "Blood Will Out," which is the story of that friendship, Kirn writes, "What is it in people, or just in people like me, that would rather let a lie go by?"
That question is important to him because after years of intimacy, Kirn was to discover that all of Rockefeller's small deceptions were merely the advance party for an enormous one: that he wasn't a Rockefeller at all, in fact, but a German man of undistinguished extraction named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter.
He was also, according to Los Angeles County prosecutors, a murderer. In 1985, a Californian named John Sohus disappeared; Gerhartsreiter had been living in Sohus' mother's guesthouse at the time, and when Sohus' dismembered body was discovered years later, parts of it were in plastic bags bearing the logo of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. That was the same university where Gerhartsreiter had been a student in 1981.
"Blood Will Out" does a good job of describing the lives of this strange man, whom Kirn calls "the most prodigious serial impostor in recent history," including his murder trial, but its deeper concern is autobiographical. (For an absorbing, straightforward history of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, there is Mark Seal's "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit.") What made him susceptible to Rockefeller's lies? How was his own, more mundane tendency to untruthfulness reflected by his friend's outrageous one? The answers make for a haunting, pained and terrifically engaging self-interrogation.
Kirn grew up in "rural Minnesota" but was bright and ambitious enough to make his way to Princeton before becoming a writer for publications like The Atlantic. During the years of his friendship with Rockefeller, he published several books, most notably "Up in the Air," which was made into the George Clooney movie of the same name. (Clooney was a "terrifying charmer," Kirn reports, without drawing an explicit comparison to the other charismatic actor he'd gotten to know.) But despite his successes, he was suffering. His marriage to a younger woman fell apart; he became dependent on Ritalin to work against his deadlines; he experienced financial anxieties. Most devastatingly, his mother died unexpectedly, after a state fair: In his dryly heartbroken words, "her last meal was a snow cone."
As Kirn describes them, this accumulation of destabilizing sorrows set the stage perfectly for a disintegration of his whole sense of identity, which finally came when Gerhartsreiter was unmasked. "The effect on me was Galilean," he writes. "It humbled me. It reoriented everything. It revealed to me the size and power of my ignorance and vanity." Hadn't there been something transactional and ugly in agreeing to drive that dog out of Montana? In maintaining a friendship with someone so frankly bizarre, mostly because he was a Rockefeller?
Kirn's chastening, then, not Gerhartsreiter's, is the true subject of "Blood Will Out." But what's most interesting about it is that even below its surface of harsh self-scrutiny, the reader can still discern precisely what the book, in its rawness, is supposed to have stripped away: Kirn's restless ambition. He seems acutely aware that his story contains all the elements of a great American narrative: self-invention, violence, money, deceit, redemption. In this respect he practically begs the reader to compare his book to "The Great Gatsby" (by another Minnesota-to-Princeton traveler), occasionally drawing close to an effect of parody.
"You can't predict the past," Kirn writes at one point, and at another, "I only laugh at truly funny remarks; it's the one incorruptible, honest trait in me," a near-plagiarism of "Gatsby" narrator Nick Carraway's line about everyone suspecting themselves of one of the cardinal virtues.
And yet Kirn's tone of middle-aged self-reckoning is unquestionably heartfelt. That's what makes great memoirs — which this one is — so interesting: They're at once authentic and performative. They're not all that different in that respect from the act of an impostor and murderer such as Gerhartsreiter, missing only the essential ingredient of madness.
"Blood Will Out" operates within the ambiguities of that echo. For Kirn, whose novels have been marked more by intelligence than feeling, it's a major step forward as a writer — and as an adult, too, it would seem. There's a simultaneous sense of loss and of growth in his realization that life can be anything he, or Gerhartsreiter, says it is. As a stranger tells him, "The Rockefellers are mostly broke now. No one runs the world, I'm sad to say. They don't even try. It was better when they did."
Charles Finch is a writer based in Chicago. His most recent novel is "The Last Enchantments."
"Blood Will Out"
By Walter Kirn, Liveright, 255 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun