‘Blood Will Out’ is an absorbing read
Walter Kirn should have listened to his mom, Millie, who appears at a pivotal point in Kirn’s new memoir, “Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade.”
Kirn, who grew up in Marine on St. Croix and Shafer, Minn., was at a low point in his life in 1998. So he agreed to drive a half-paralyzed dog named Shelby from Montana to Manhattan. Waiting for them would be the dog’s new owner, Clark Rockefeller, who claimed he was a member of the wealthy Rockefeller family.
When Kirn met Shelby, the writer was living on a ranch in Livingston, Mont., with his wife, Maggie, president of the local Humane Society. She was friends with Mary and Harry Piper, Montana residents who had rescued the dog and paid for her medical treatment and a canine wheelchair. Kirn had met Harry in a writing class where Piper was working on a book about the 1972 kidnapping of his mother, Minnesota socialite Virginia Piper.
So Kirn built a plywood platform in his truck for Shelby to rest on and they began the long drive to the East Coast. Things did not go well. The Gordon setter kept slipping because she wasn’t strong enough to brace herself and Kirn was exhausted by the time they reached his mother’s house in Marine on St. Croix.
Millie was appalled at the condition of the thin, frail dog, who promptly soiled her kitchen rug. And she was suspicious when her son told her about Rockefeller, who claimed to be an art collector and banker.
“Anyone who’d want that animal, there’s something wrong with him, I’m telling you,” said Millie, a retired nurse.
“Mother was the voice of sanity I ignored,” Kirn admitted during a conversation from his home in Livingston. “She took a calm, cool look at people, and she could see a phony. Had I listened to her, I wouldn’t have gotten into this crazy mess. Everything that is solid and common-sensical about the Midwest was baked into my mother. She didn’t want to hurt me by telling me I was crazy, but she did want to help that dog. She practically ordered me to put it down. I thought I couldn’t disappoint a Rockefeller who was expecting me to deliver his new pet.”
Kirn heeded part of his mother’s advice and abandoned the road trip. He and Shelby flew from Minneapolis to New York, where they were met by eccentric, self-centered, talkative Rockefeller.
What happened after that is the subject of “Blood Will Out,” the story of Kirn’s 15-year friendship with a man eventually unmasked as a kidnapper and murderer. The book, which came out this month, has been lauded by critics and has generated widespread publicity.
In his book, Kirn, 51, tries to figure out how he could have been duped for so long by an impostor. His Minnesota memories are woven into his story.
When Kirn was in elementary school, his family lived in Marine, which he describes for his readers as a “little green Tom Sawyer river town.” Their house was filled with books.
“My mother was the biggest reader I’ve ever known,” he recalled. “She read ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ in all its unabridged wordiness. She read Twain, Dickens, always had sets of books she was trying to steer me to. Just having all those books around as a kid penetrated my mind.”
When Kirn was 12, his father, also named Walter, moved the family to Phoenix. The senior Kirn, a patent attorney, had “soured on the Midwest” and was planning to start a private practice.
During their time in Arizona, the Kirns joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose members helped when Walter Sr. had a mental breakdown. Walter Jr. left Mormonism when he was 17, but those years inspired some stories in his first published book, “My Hard Bargain.”
Returning to Minnesota, the family settled in the little town of Shafer in Chisago County. (Millie, who died in 2011, moved back to Marine after she and her husband divorced.)
One of the first people to inspire Kirn was Tom Terry, his English teacher at Taylors Falls High School.
“Tom had studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” Kirn recalled. “He talked to me a lot about writing, gave me books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, like contemporary poetry. At some point, he said, ‘I think you are a writer.’ He gave me the impression writing was a fun job, a way of being curious and inventing new ways of looking at the world. To him, writers were heroes.”
When “My Hard Bargain” was published in 1990, Kirn recalled his teen years in a Pioneer Press interview:
“I sure wasn’t a kid anyone would have picked to be a writer when I was at Taylors Falls High School. I screwed around a lot and had a good time, played football and baseball, made $2.10 an hour freezing my butt off in the lift shacks working at Wild Mountain (ski area).”
One of Kirn’s best friends, then and now, is Wade Vitalis, owner of the Drive-In Restaurant and Adventure Falls Mini Golf in Taylors Falls, a diner/drive-in in Grantsburg, Wis., and Wild River Ski Rental at Wild River State Park in Almelund, Minn. He and his wife, Carol Nagele-Vitalis, live in Franconia with their son Peter.
“Walt and I met our freshman year in high school,” Vitalis recalled. “He was coming up the hill in Franconia and I was going down. I was a river rat, and when I saw the fishing pole in his hand, I knew we would be friends right away.”
During their sophomore year, Kirn wrote a sports column for the St. Croix Falls, Wis., newspaper.
“We knew Walt had a penchant for writing, and his newspaper stories stood out because they were far more interesting than the usual sports stories,” Vitalis said. “I didn’t know what he was going to do in life, but it was part of his personality to get himself into challenging situations, and from that perspective, it doesn’t surprise me he would become a successful writer.”
Kirn skipped his senior year in high school to enroll at Macalester College in St. Paul. Among his happiest memories is sitting in an old chair in the nearby Hungry Mind bookstore “dipping into a dozen different books.”
Alvin Greenberg, then-chairman of Macalester’s English department, encouraged Kirn to write poetry, which won the college’s creative-writing prize.
“Walt was at the top of my fairly long list of the best and brightest I was privileged to work with at Macalester,” Greenberg recalled. “Walt was passionate about writing, intelligent and insightful about what he read. My preferred word to describe him at the time was ‘intense.’ ”
Kirn left Macalester after a year to attend Princeton, his dad’s alma mater. Greenberg warned him he would be unhappy there, and he was. He was disoriented and out of place among the Eastern preppies, feelings that fuel his 2009 memoir “Lost in the Meritocracy.”
After graduating from Princeton summa cum laude in 1983, Kirn was awarded a fellowship to Oxford in England. When he returned to the U.S., he taught English as a second language, then worked in New York as an editor at Vanity Fair and Spy magazines. At night, he worked on short stories that would become “My Hard Bargain.”
Kirn has sold the ranch where “Blood Will Out” begins and lives in a loft in a commercial building in Livingston. He and Maggie are divorced, but she lives nearby with their children, Maisie, 15, and Charlie, 12. His dad lives outside of town.
Now that Kirn is a published author, does he think writing is the fun job envisioned by his high school teacher?
“Little did I know that it’s endless work, a lot of solitude,” he replied with a laugh. “I am fairly social, so locking myself in a room to write isn’t easy. Writing involves a lot of rejection, disappointment. If you are lucky enough to get published, you deal with bad reviews, people who don’t like you based on what you’ve written. But all in all, it’s the most wonderful job in the world.”
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