This very clever nonfiction mystery unravels the fifteen-year relationship the author, Walter Kirn, had with the noted con man Christian Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a. Clark Rockefeller. Kirn sets the scene in the beginning by relating several very funny and cringe-worthy examples of his own appalling lack of good judgment in his life and his career culminating in his meeting Clark Rockefeller. Why they remain friends over the years that follow is the mystery we seek to uncover. Kirn's tone at the start, the peevish snark of the perennially disappointed, changes to aghast uncertainty tinged with outrage, and then to something like a belligerent pride. In a very spooky finale we find ourselves staring into the eyes and soul not of Clark Rockefeller, but of Walter Kirn.
Kirn handles the material masterfully, telling his side of the several phone calls, dinners, and weekends he and Clark spent together over the years, giving us glimpses into his willingness to suspend disbelief: “he was interesting,” “he was powerful,” “I thought I might learn something,” etc. Kirn rolls into the details of Gerhartsreiter’s trial, relating court scenes and the feelings the facts aroused in him. He is dogged, obessed even, with uncovering what Gerhartsreiter was thinking when he entered into relationships with people. He describes Sandra Boss, the woman who lived longest with Clark Rockefeller: "Her shoulder-length hair was the blond that covers gray and in her ears were modest single pearls whose luster was that of money banked, not spent." He learns that Clark Rockefeller played on the “vanity, vanity, vanity” of his targets. This statement rotates in our heads as we mull the details.
Kirn reminds us several times that he is a journalist and a novelist, which is why we are startled at the end to discover that the man writing the story is a mirror, in some ways, of the man he is writing about. Which man is the cipher? Kirn can also be manipulative and sly and less than truthful: “I was acting much of the time…I was conning him. I betrayed him.” It is a beguiling tale, start to finish, and Kirn lives up to his reputation.
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