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Book review: Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

Journalist, novelist and critic Kirn writes the straight dope about enigmatic would-be aristocrat Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter.

Jay Muhlin

By Drew Toal. W.W. Norton, $26.

How long does it take to really know someone? A year? A decade? In the late ’90s, Walter Kirn made the acquaintance of a man who introduced himself as Clark Rockefeller, and fell into the orbit of this ostensible son of the great American family. With his grandiose hobbies and affected snobbishness, Rockefeller struck the author as an amusing contact, one whose surname provided access to the world of the upper crust. The only problem is that it was all bullshit.

Clark Rockefeller is actually a modern-day Mr. Ripley named Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, whose deception made headlines back in 2008. A natural-born cipher, the German émigré spent years cultivating a fabricated persona and borrowing personal details from those he duped to pass off as his own. The audacity of his big lie gave cover to his unending string of less-than-plausible stories. And when it didn’t, Gerhartsreiter wasn’t above killing to protect his secret.

Kirn’s memoir doesn’t require much in the way of embellishment, and he relates the tale in an appropriately matter-of-fact tone; he does not shrink from examining his own complicity in maintaining the aristocratic fantasia either. By the end of the book, neither Kirn nor the reader is any closer to solving the riddle of the fake Rockefeller—regardless of his arrest and subsequent conviction, his true nature and motivations remain elusive. But Kirn does learn something about himself; specifically, that he shouldn’t take any wooden nickels.