Monthly Archives: April 2014

“Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

“You made a deal with the Shadowman?!”

“He was very charismatic!”

-The Princess and the Frog

We all have different ways of dealing with trauma, betrayal, or the complete upheaval of something we fundamentally believed in: mine usually involves crying to my mom and truly ungodly amounts of chocolate. Then, once the initial emotional outburst has passed (however long that might take), we have to come to terms with what has happened, and incorporate it into our new, permanently altered worldview. Blood Will Out is Walter Kirn’s attempt along those lines: to reconcile a long-believed fiction with the devastating truth, and to figure out how and why he could be so grossly deceived, rebuilding his own self-image in the process.

In short, the book is the story of Kirn’s friendship with the man the world knew as Clark Rockefeller (real name: Christian Gerhartsreiter), and the aftermath of the revelation that his friend of nearly a decade was not only a fraud and a con artist, but also a murderer. It’s not an account of Clark’s life, or of his crimes and trial, but a dual exploration into the natures of and the relationship between the two men, and an attempt to exorcise personal demons. The book is about Kirn as much as it is about Clark, as the author explores the roots of their friendship, and reflects uncomfortably on his own susceptibility to Clark’s deceptions. I sincerely hope that writing this, putting his experiences into words, was cathartic for Kirn – I honestly cannot begin to imagine the what all of this meant to him, or to the others who knew and were fooled by Clark in any and all of his incarnations. The guilt, shame and bewilderment he feels is made all too clear when he describes himselfas the perfect mark: not just a victim, but a collaborator in Clark’s crime, complicit by his very silence and failure to challenge his friend’s contradictions and absurdities.

He’s not alone in that, considering the sheer number of people taken in by Gerhartsreiter (or whatever you want to call him – how do you refer to someone with no real identity?) over the years; we meet several of them in the book, as witnesses during Clark’s 2013 trial for the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus. It’s … strange, really, strange and ultimately dishonest, the sense of smug superiority that even the most gullible of us (me included!) initially and automatically feel when reading about the exploits of a con artist. We fool ourselves, thinking, oh, I could never fall for that. Deep down inside, however, we have to acknowledge upon further reflection, that oh, yes, I would – Clark would have taken us in just as easily. Kirn is in the unenviable position of not even having the superficial fiction to comfort himself with; instead, he is forced to accept and come to terms with his own credulity. The only difference between himself and those on the witness stand is that he doesn’t have to admit in open court, on the record, exactly how he was deceived.

In his quest to understand, to find out the how and the why, Kirn paints Clark as an evil parasite, using some truly lovely descriptions to conjure off someone maliciously leeching off everyone around him: he is “a brain tick. He crawled into your hair and fed on your life through a puncture in your scalp”; he was “worse than a murderer… a cannibal of souls.” Nothing about Clark is original – everything is lifted, borrowed or stolen from someone else, or even works of fiction. He transforms himself, becoming a character, someone from a book or a movie, playing a role out in real life; literally as well as figuratively, since almost every aspect of the Sohus murder was stolen from classic film. During the trial, Kirn even hosts his own private “2013 Clark Rockefeller Film Festival” as he plows through Hitchcock and other movies, finding horrifying similarities between the defendant and the screen at almost every turn.

In plugging Clark into fictional settings (and encouraging others to do so) and deconstructing his inspirations, it’s as if Kirn is trying to find some way to categorize him, to explain him and render him understandable and recognizable, less alien and more familiar. To an extent, he is successful, learning far more about Clark from his private film festival than he did in all their years of acquaintance, or sitting in a courtroom, listening to the parade of evidence. It’s a method familiar to me, and I found myself doing the exact same thing as I read; as regular readers may have surmised by now, that’s how I approach any book, drawing wacky comparisons that really only make sense in my somewhat addled brain. It’s the Miss Marple method of crime-solving; once you figure out how an individual reminds you of someone else, someone you knew well, you can begin to predict behavior, assign guilt and prove innocence. My parallels were a bit less lofty than the ones Clark drew from and that Kirn discovered through his research (Terry Pratchett, Disney, and the Anastasia pretender Anna Anderson, among others), but the principle is the same. Once you put a name and a label on something, can recognize it and categorize it, it becomes less terrifying; it’s comforting and reassuring to know that my mind isn’t the only one that operates along those lines.

Ultimately, however, in spite of speculation, theories and interviews, Clark Rockefeller is never made less enigmatic and puzzling. It’s impossible to know what is going on inside his head – everything else is guesswork and surmise. He’s a liar, who never speaks honestly, never defends himself but with another falsehood. There’s simply no way to know how accurate Kirn’s analysis is, whether he’s right on the money or way off base. No one knows, or likely will ever know, the real Clark Rockefeller, Christopher Chichester, Chip Smith or evern Christian Gerhartsreiter … if such an individual can even be said to exist.




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“Missing You” by Harlan Coben

“What” and “If” are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if?


Letters to Juliet

As much as I loved having my parents read aloud to me when I was little, plus the fact that story time was my favorite part of the day in elementary school, I haven’t had much to do with audio books as an adult. I’m a fast reader, so I get impatient with the slower pace that comes with listening , and for longer or more serious books I worry that I’ll miss something important if my attention wanders at the wrong moment (which it will – on occasion, I have the attention span of a fruit fly, so this is a legitimate … oooh, shiny!).

This doesn’t, however, mean that I don’t appreciate the sheer power of the spoken word: quite the opposite. Which is actually another reason why I usually avoid having someone else read a book to me, especially for the first time: we all have our own interpretations of a work, which will of necessity creep into how we read it aloud, and that in turn can’t help but color how the listeners hear and view the piece. The first time I encounter a book, I want my thoughts and impressions to be mine, not filtered through someone else, however wonderful they may be.

The right reading, the right voice, the right inflection, can make all the difference in how we view a work: it can be a complete game-changer. In undergrad, I was on the staff of the student literary magazine, and part of our vetting process for all poetry submissions was to read each piece out loud before we discussed it and voted on it. On one memorable occasion, after I volunteered to read one of my favorites from that week’s selection, that year’s senior editor informed us all that he didn’t like that particular poem at all … until he heard it aloud.

In this particular case, it was a reading that prompted me to move Missing You up to the very top of my lengthy “To-Read” list, as part of our online event with the author, Harlan Coben, on March 25th. In preparation for the event, I’d studied the publisher’s blurb, skimmed the dust jacket, and then mentally filed the novel away under, “Intriguing, very much so – explore later”. As part of the evening (which was awesome, by the way, seriously, anyone who didn’t stop by missed out), Mr. Coben read a few choice pages from the first chapter, detailing a pretty crucial moment that actually jumpstarts the whole plot, and I was hooked.

It’s a novel predicated on the incredible power of “What If?” (something that also came up at length during our event with the author – Mr. Coben had a lot to say about its uses for a writer and a storyteller), and based on a pretty ubiquitous impulse: that of looking up and possibly reconnecting with an ex, the proverbial one that got away. We’ve all had it, fought against it, were seriously embarrassed by it. There are even apps designed to prevent you from stupidly (or drunkenly) giving in to it; even as you know what a truly terrible idea it would be… you still want to.

As the novel opens, Kat Donovan, an NYPD detective like her father and grandfather before her, has managed to quash that impulse pretty well over the past eighteen years, with the exception of a few moments of drunk-Googling (her words, not mine). And it certainly wasn’t her idea to sign up for online dating – the year-long membership to was gift from her friend Stacey. As she browses through the profiles (among the ManStallions and LadySatisfiers -seriously?), she spots a very familiar photo – older, certainly but still recognizable as Jeff, the man she was engaged to almost two decades ago, and who walked out on her shortly after the murder of her father. She agonizes about all the possibilities of this discovery for several days … before giving in and contacting him.

Sending that one message to her former fiancĂ© rocks Kat’s world and sends her plummeting down the rabbit hole, over the rainbow, or through the looking glass (pick your metaphor) and completely overturning what she had always believed to be true: about Jeff, about her father’s murder, about those closest to her, about herself … about everything. Her message and the consequences thereof springboard into a whole series of revelations that are on par with Luke, I am your father. And that’s just on the purely personal level: along the way, Kat stumbles upon the trail a diabolically clever and truly horrifying predator. It’s a messy, almost impossibly complicated tangle, that only begins to unravel after she tugs on a single thread.

Beyond the what-ifs, beyond the coincidence and heartbreak, the real conflict of the novel comes from the choice between speaking and not speaking, between knowing and not knowing: the unending ache of uncertainty versus the heartbreak of the truth. Kat has spent much of her adult life haunted by unanswered questions; a lot of crucial information has been deliberately kept from her by those who care about her and only want to protect her from further pain (along with protecting themselves, but that’s an entirely different matter). When it comes to the past, her mother is far happier not knowing, content with the illusion of memory or the memory of illusions (pick one). Kat is different: she simply can’t stop digging, can’t stop poking at the past, can’t stop picking at the scabs of barely healed wounds. She’s a cop, with all the instincts that entails: something smells fishy, and she can’t rest in blissful ignorance. She needs to know, needs to find out … and she does.


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