Should Your Book Club Read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?

Should your book club read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?  Well, I am going to say…yes.  I just finished this book–I tore through it and now feel a bit yucky, in need of a shower.  I’d been looking for a light read–something easy for winding down at night–and this was on the “New Books” shelf at the library and caught my eye.  I vaguely remembered having read a review of it in the NY Times and thinking this sounds interesting

Well, it’s interesting, all right.  In fact, I found it fascinating.  I am not a psychologist (although I am drawn to literature because it teaches us so much about human nature and the human psyche) but I
am going to venture a diagnosis here: I feel like I just finished reading a book about a psychopath written by an obsessive narcissist.  How’s that for some armchair psychology?

Warp-speed plot summary:

This is Walter Kirn’s true account (your book club will want to discuss what THAT means!) of his relationship with Clark Rockefeller, the conman who claimed to be part of the famous and wealthy family whose financial roots lie in Standard Oil.  This Clark fellow, as it turns out, was not a Rockefeller at all; he had many aliases and many other identities and lives, and eventually was put on trial for murder.  He had already been on trial for the abduction of his daughter, which evidently was the catalyst for everyone catching onto Clark’s ruse in the first place.  “Ruse,” in this case, is a serious understatement, by the way.

The book is Kirn’s account–and exploration–of his relationship with Clark.  It is also the account of the murder trial.  So, it’s a suspenseful murder who-done-it wrapped up in a psychological (or perhaps pseudo-psychological) study.  I read it with a kind of watching-a-car-crash fascination.  Kirn talks about the hall of mirrors that Clark has created, but I often was wondering whether I, as reader, had fallen into a hall of mirrors of sorts.  As much as Kirn was manipulated by Clark, was I being manipulated by Kirn?  And does wondering this put me in the same position as Kirn and therefore make me as narcissistic as he is???

I won’t tell you how the book ends–maybe you already know–but let’s now turn to:

What can your book club discuss?

Let’s start with the author  You’ll want to discuss the role of Walter Kirn as narrator and how that affects you as a reader–and how far you trust him.  How much of what he tells you do you believe?  What are his motivations for telling this story?  What rhetorical devices does he employ to gain your trust and credulity?

How would you characterize the author?  Some people think this book is more about him than about Clark Rockefeller.  You may want, therefore, to consider Kirn as a character in this book and analyze him accordingly.

In fact, as I just wrote that last bit, it suddenly makes sense: this book IS about Walter Kirn.  It’s ostensibly about Clark, but really about Walter Kirn.  The same sleight of hand move that Clark would have used on Kirn, Kirn uses on us!  Ha!

But there’s more!  The best part is (and I alluded to this above) that Kirn forces the reader into the position that he occupied vis-a-vis Clark!  Wow–that is some artistic manipulation!  And I am at risk of becoming the obsessive narcissist (not just a plain ole narcissist) as I keep repeating this…

You’ll undoubtedly discuss appearances versus reality.  Although I’m not sure you’ll come to many conclusions.  This is quite a broad conversation, but make sure to talk about how we create our own reality from our desires.  Kirn admits repeatedly that he should have seen through Clark’s guise but didn’t necessarily want to do so.  This seems to be a common trait in the people ensnared by Clark.  Why, though?  What was motivating them?  What drew Kirn to Clark in the first place?  (Hint, he admits why in the book.)  Part of this is the posturing that is going on.  By Clark.  And by Kirn.  Oh yes, definitely by Kirn.

You’ll want to discuss the role of language–very important in this story.  Think about how Kirn uses language and how Clark uses it.  And how society uses it.  Turn to page 109 and read Kirn’s words: “…I learned to speak the language of…paradox, of endless loops, of ever-receding, ever-dissolving everything, of “truth claims” instead of truths, of paradigms lost…”  You’ll want to talk about truth.  What is it?  Does it exist?  Can it exist in a story that someone is telling us?  Even if that story is on the non-fiction shelf of the bookstore?  How much of Clark is a creation of Kirn?

Again, as I just finished writing the above, it is striking me: Clark is kind of blank page of sorts; he’s an enigma or code that can’t be cracked.  Kirn refuses to accept this and “writes Clark”; Kirn, as author, presents a Clark to the reader as the definitive version.  The role of creation in non-fiction–taken to perhaps a new level?

You’ll want to discuss the role of class in this story–HUGE–and also the role of power.  And how they relate to each other.  Yes, in many ways, this is what this book is about!  On page 170 Kirn tells us:  “But men compete.”  No question, no gray area, no wiggle room.  Just a definitive: “But men compete.”  Really?  Is that what this book is all about?  Hmm…

You’ll want to discuss how a shocking revelation can throw your sense of history into disarray.  Kirn discusses this on pp.179-80: “When fresh information discredits past perceptions, the underlying memories remain but they no longer hold their old positions; you’re left to draw a new map with displaced landmarks.”

You know, I can’t stop thinking about Kirn as a character as I write this.  He’s quite a lively writer, by the way; as I said above, I tore through this book.  He uses language–manipulates it, one might say–extremely well, and makes for very entertaining reading.  He went to Princeton and Oxford–impressive credentials, if not to you then to him for sure!, and seems very informed on all sorts of matters.  He also seems to be addicted to…what?  The limelight?  Attention?  Approval?  Admiration?  Well, you’ll want to discuss this–get back to me on it if you like.

You’ll want to discuss the literary references in the book; you may or may not find them successful.  (One question: Is Kirn using them to help build his case, his story about Clark?) But you’ll also want to discuss how art is a presence in the book.  (Another question: How much of each person is a creation, an artwork?)  And how psychology is a presence.  Just this could take up an entire discussion!  And don’t forget to talk about theater–and how this life is just a stage upon which we are all actors!  And who is directing???

At the end of the book, Kirn tells us: “I was part of [Clark’s] audience, he thought.  But in truth I was acting much of the time.  He was conning me but I was also conning him.” (252)  I guess I would want to discuss: As reader, just how conned by Kirn do I feel?  And does it matter if he entertained me with this story?  Am I a collaborator as opposed to victim–just as Kirn at one point describes himself?

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