Walter Kirn

Top Ten contributor Walter Kirn is receiving strong reviews for his transfixing new work of memoir and reportage, Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. As he explains in a sensational interview with himself in the New York Times (read it right now, then come back), the book concerns “his bizarre 15-year relationship with the infamous impostor and murderer who went by the alias Clark Rockefeller. He met the masquerading German immigrant (whose real name is Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter and who is serving a sentence of 27 years to life in a California prison) in the summer of 1998, when Mr. Kirn was between books and feeling restless.”

Kirn continues: “Readers of “Blood Will Out” may find Mr. Kirn’s persistent cluelessness astonishing. For 10 years, until “Rockefeller” was unmasked after kidnapping his noncustodial daughter outside a Boston courthouse, Mr. Kirn never suspected that his posh friend was anyone other than whom he said he was, let alone a fugitive person of interest in a gruesome cold-case murder from 1985. There were many red flags, but the trusting Oxford graduate (Mr. Kirn studied there on a scholarship after Princeton), explained them away as upper-class eccentricities not unlike those of the young British aristocrats whom he encountered in his early 20s. The bogus heir described himself as “a freelance central banker” and claimed to possess a key — a master key — to all of the buildings in Rockefeller Center. He also boasted of close friendships with Britney Spears and the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.”

The result is a riveting dual portrait: of a writer who disdained the high and mighty even as he cozied up to them (who wouldn’t want to be friends with a Rockefeller?), and of a skillful sociopath who seems to have cut and paste his persona from old movies (especially film noir) and the lives of those he duped and killed.

I agree with Amity Gaige who wrote in Slate: “What makes “Blood Will Out” so absorbing is its teller more than its subject. Kirn’s persona is captivating—funny, pissed off, highly literate, and self-searching. He’s also an elegant, classic writer. … Kirn’s book on lies, writing, and murder reaches both outward and inward. It’s a portrait of a now-famous imposter, as well as a colorful blow-by-blow of his murder trial. It’s also a lamentation about what it feels like to be screwed over. It’s such an honest book that I feel Kirn is finally too hard on himself for believing Rockefeller—Kirn is a writer, after all, and he has to follow the story before it even takes shape as a story. Joseph Mitchell once commented that, because of his profession, he had “been tortured by some of the fanciest ear-benders in the world,” and that he had “long since lost the ability to detect insanity.” Perhaps Kirn’s good faith in Rockefeller had a similar root. Add the highly readable, intricately told Blood Will Out to the list of great books about the dizzying tensions of the writing life and the maddening difficulty of getting at the truth.”

Walter Kirn’s Top Ten List

1. The stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64).
2. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952).
3. Norwood by Charles Portis (1966).
4. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947).
5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
6. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934).
7. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992).
8. Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (1933).
9. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884).
10. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969).