Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Note On Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out


On Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

Ok, on what I've quickly looked at, I'm a lonely voice. 

All reviews I read are enthusiastic about Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out, which is a wonderfully written, insightful, self revealing account of his relationship with convicted murderer, sociopath, con man--maybe Gatsby like, but not really, he never springs from his platonic conception of himself, but Kirn seems to think the analogy holds--Clark Rockefeller, one of his assumed identities as one of *the* Rockefellers and what Kirn calls him. 

Kirn flits in and out of his 15 year friendship with  Rockefeller, and spends a big chunk of the book's time wondering how he could have been taken in by him for so long. The book's latter portion concerns Kirn's attendance at Rockefeller's murder trial. Kirn pivots off the trial to revisit the long friendship from the angle of now knowing the truth about Rockefeller. Kirn sees now so much of what he missed before and wonders why and how he did.

Kirn's a smart fellow, graduate of Princeton and Oxford. His self examination leads to some understanding of how Rockefeller sucked him in, which I boil down to Kirn willing himself to believe that Rockefeller is indeed one of *the* Rockefellers so that their friendship is a ticket for Kirn inside the inner chambers of American aristocracy. 

The problem (for me at least) is how obvious it is, hindsight notwithstanding, simply from reading a bit in Kirn about Rockefeller, of whom before this I only had passing knowledge, what an utter phoney he is, how full of bullshit he is. Others, say Kirn's mother, Kirn's then wife, see it right off, but Kirn wills himself into obtuse blindness even as he recognizes contradictions in what Rockefeller says in the same conversation, breaches by Rockefeller of his promises, and the patent implausibility of so much of what he says. 

Which isn't to say that even somebody sensible couldn't have been taken in for a while, but for Kirn to have been so for 15 years: that's simply astonishing. And here's the nub of the rub: what Kirn wills himself to believe even in the face of so many counter instances corresponds to some depth of deficiency, of something missing, a hole,  in him that he never comes to terms with insofar as this book has it. 

So we have a certain discordance among Rockerfeller's quickly apparent bullshit and sociopathy manifest in depravities culminating in murder, Kirn's susceptibility to it for a decade and a half while others detect it right away, Kirn's attempt to diagnose what in him made him so vulnerable, and his failure to penetrate causes deeper than what he has on offer. This last marks, I argue, a failure in the book, as though we've eaten a promising, and in fact quite delicious meal that is satisfying as far as it goes but still leaves us hungry, wanting more, and, so, finally, dissatisfied. 

Therefore, as this last discordance--between Kirn trying to understand himself fully but not getting there--increasingly becomes the axis on which the book turns, depths not reached, I became somewhat numbed and inured while reading: more cons and lies and foolishness and bullshit, more susceptibility to it, and no forthcoming better insight into why. 

In this, there's a telling short sequence that I'm not sure even Kirn gets the ironic significance of. It's tucked in near the end part of the book, during the time of the trial. Kirn has dinner one evening with James Ellroy, who Kirn sketches only briefly but wonderfully. Kirn's a terrific writer. And they talk. And, in short, Ellroy tells Kirn, I paraphrase, "Enough with getting to the bottom of what this guy's about. You'll never understand him any better than you do. He is who and what he is." 

The sequence is telling for a number of reasons: Kirn defies the advice but gets to no further underlying truth about Rockefeller, let alone himself; as he gets no deeper truth neither do we and we get increasingly treated to variations on a theme growing shopworn; and post trial, Kirn, not heeding of Ellroy's advice, oddly reviews and slogs through a batch of emails and blog entries by Rockefeller having to do with him getting a severely injured dog from people in Kirn's town in Montana, which dog, Shelby, Kirn transports from Montana to Rockefeller in New York, described in the book's opening. Kirn's review of these emails and blog postings is irritatingly dull and marks a rare literary lapse in Blood Will Out. 

So I say, coming back to where I came in, Blood Will Out is a worthwhile book. The prose is crisp and clear. There is obvious intelligence behind it and up to a point we learn a great deal about Rockefeller and his hold on Kirn with some understanding why. But we don't, I argue, finally come away wiser in this sense: we remain befuddled  by what more deeply in Kirn allows him to trust Rockefeller sufficiently to consider him a friend over 15 years. That failure and what collaterally spins out of it comprise the ultimate weakness of Blood Will Out. 

Near the very end, Kirn in reflecting on everything in a summarizing way claims something like he conned Rockefeller as much as Rockefeller conned him. To me that claim comes across as pathetic self delusion and rationalization. But the rationalization of what? Perhaps, I speculate, Kirn unwittingly is acknowledging and trying to rationalize why he, in the final analysis, has come up short. 

A final (almost a foot) note: why I think Kirn is wrong to see Gatsby as a literary precursor to Rockefeller, who in fact models many of his cons and exploits and crimes off movies, tv shows and novels, is that Gatsby is indeed great as he paradoxically lives out a self created ideal, a Platonic self conception, noble, maybe like Don Quixote's quest is noble, in its fervency and his commitment to it even as it is built around a meretricious simpleton, Daisy, and is built on gangster corruption. There is totally nothing that is noble or redeeming or great in Rockefeller's sociopathic, ultimately murderous, bullshit.

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