Life with a dangerous serial imposter

Life with a dangerous serial imposter

A review of a latest book from the author of “Up in the Air”



By Walter Kirn

Good writers are leeches by nature, forever latching onto new people and feeding off the details of their lives. For Kirn, the author of Up in the Air, the story that would become Blood Will Out started out as that kind of parasitic mission: an effort to meet a true character who could fill out one of his fictional worlds. What happened, however, was very nearly the opposite. For a decade, Kirn—rather than telling a story—was drawn into someone else’s. He became an unwitting character in a fiction created by a serial imposter, a man whose real-life deeds had echoes of both Raskolnikov and Tom Ripley.

In 1998, his wife pregnant and his work stalled, Kirn agreed to drive a crippled dog from Montana to New York as a favour to a pair of local animal lovers. He was supposed to drop the dog off with its new owner, a Rockefeller heir who described himself to Kirn as a “freelance central banker.” Kirn recognized early on that there was something off about “Clark Rockefeller.” But that didn’t stop him from piling the dog—wheelchair and all—into his truck and heading east. “I was a writer,” he wrote, “even more important, a writer between books, and I had a hunch I was going to meet a character.”

That hunch turned out to be more right than Kirn could possibly have imagined. Clark Rockefeller, he later learned, was really Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant who had spent decades embodying a series of unlikely aliases in the U.S., from a minor British noble dabbling in film to a Rockefeller who collected fine art and wrote fan fiction about Star Trek. Gerhartsreiter was unmasked in 2008 after he kidnapped his own daughter. Once in custody, fingerprints linked him to an unsolved California murder, leaving Kirn to grapple with the idea that his eccentric friend was actually a psychopath and a murderer.

The first 50 pages of Blood Will Out are very near perfect, both arresting and introspective. The book flags afterward, but it’s still a remarkable story, one that is, in many ways, about stories themselves, both the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we let others convince us are true.

Richard Warnica

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