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Book review: ‘Blood Will Out’ by Walter Kirn

By Gerald Bartell
San Francisco Chronicle

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Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade

Walter Kirn

The writer Walter Kirn was in debt, and looking for a book project — the Akron native had yet to publish the novels Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, both of which would be adapted into films. So he agreed to drive Shelby, a crippled Gordon setter, from Montana to New York City, where one Clark Rockefeller was eager to give the dog a home. Kirn thought it might make a good story.

He took along a copy of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. But instead of “folksy sketches of charming American characters,” Kirn writes, the book “brimmed with fears about the future that had mostly come true.”

Kirn might have taken a cue from Steinbeck, for Kirn, too, was heading into a dark, disillusioning encounter that said a lot about America.

From the outset, the trip, in the summer of 1998, went awry. Shelby was not adorable; she was unresponsive and “aggressively pathetic.” During a stop at his mother’s Minnesota home, she wonders about Shelby’s future owner: “Anyone who’d want that animal, there’s something wrong with him.”

Meeting Rockefeller in New York, Kirn at once shares his mother’s disdain: “I found him instantly annoying: a twee, diminutive hobbit of a fellow whose level of self-amusement seemed almost delusional.”

Rockefeller fetes Kirn with a lavish rooftop dinner. His conversation — more accurately, his monologue — embraces U.S. relations with China, the prediction of a market collapse, recollections of attending Yale at age 14 and mention of a forthcoming cameo on Frasier.

Kirn visits Clark’s Central Park West apartment where, Clark claims, Tony Bennett lives down the hall. The men look at Rockefeller’s art and Rockefeller draws Kirn’s attention to the frame for a Rothko, which, he insists, is dribbled with Rothko’s blood. “I couldn’t see it,” Kirn writes, “but to please him I said I could.”

Then comes a jump cut that will have readers settling in for a long night’s tale of horror. Clark Rockefeller is a man of many identities. As Kirn vividly puts it, “Clark tended a flourishing secret garden grown from cloned bits of people he’d gained some knowledge of.”

At the time it surfaced, Rockefeller’s story was widely covered, but that should not prevent anyone from reading Kirn’s haunting account of the time they “made an interesting pair, the small-town novelist and the lonesome Rockefeller.”

Kirn tells the story of their 15-year relationship with perspective and context. There is Kirn’s sense that Rockefeller resembled “the shape-shifting trickster of American myth and literature.” For examples, Kirn sifts through Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Hitchcock’s Rope and Strangers on a Train. Rockefeller, Kirn concludes, became “a composite being of ink and celluloid … who had cloaked himself in the stuff of my own literacy.”

The overriding question is why Kirn stayed so long under Rockefeller’s spell, even when the author knew he should speak up, confront and challenge this conniving, dangerous Zelig. Kirn accounts for his responses — more accurately, his lack of responses — in sensitive self-examinations.

Kirn’s voice throughout is witty and sharp. His canny, deceptively casual organization of the narrative heightens suspense, and the words and images in his flowing prose cut like laser beams. For its devastating, unsettling psychological insights and its rich, polished writing, Blood Will Out equals Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as a nonfiction novel of crime.


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