When Walter Kirn, a respected journalist, volunteers to deliver a paralysed dog to a stranger, he is not acting purely out of altruistic motives.
The stranger, Clark Rockefeller, is a member of the famous and wealthy family, and Kirn freely admits that throughout his own time at Princeton and Oxford, he tried hard to get in with the moneyed students. Being a writer, he is also always on the look-out for new material, and the sophisticated Rockefeller, with his flat full of valuable artworks and his membership of exclusive clubs, is just the kind of worldy type who fascinates him. The two strike up a friendship. Rockefeller, urbane yet imperious, regales Kirn with tales of his famous friends, including Britney Spears, J D Salinger, and George Lucas, and talks about his work as a “central banker”, and his space research.
But then the sands shift under Kirn’s feet. Rockefeller, distraught after his divorce, kidnaps his daughter and goes into hiding. He is soon found, but the search has revealed that he is not Clark Rockefeller at all, but a German man, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who has multiple fake identities. He has, at various times, pretended to be a film student, an English baronet related to Sir Francis Chichester, and several other colourful characters.
More worryingly, remains of a body have been found at the address where Gerhartsreiter lived in the 1980s. A man was killed and buried, his body parts wrapped in bags from bookshops Gerhartsreiter frequented. The man’s wife has probably been killed too. And Gerhartsreiter had both means and motive to murder.
Walter Kirn’s account of this psychopath is mesmerising and insightful. With chilling acumen, he outlines the way Gerhartsreiter played with those around him, staging a party over the freshly dug grave of his victim in one of a number of macabre homages to film noir movies. The trial scenes are grippingly suspenseful, the performances of both prosecuting and defence lawyers thrillingly depicted. As Kirn pieces the jigsaw of his former friend together, he realises that every aspect of this disturbed man was stolen from someone else, either real life or fictional.
Brilliant a writer though Kirn is, I had initial misgivings about his own capacity for empathy, since he described the paralysed dog, shot and run down by its previous owner as “aggressively pathetic”, and refers to another dog he ran over by mistake as a “mutt”. But it soon becomes apparent that Kirn is one of those writers who is willing to dissect his own faults in public, and this readiness to admit his weaknesses – such as his hunger for friends with prestige – adds to the psychological insights of this haunting book.Reuse content