SACRAMENTO — What Michael Finkel of the New York Times magazine did was contemptible, and he deserved to get fired. No one knows that more than Finkel. Jayson Blair he is not — well, technically, he is, since he invented people and situations and passed it off as journalism – but at least Finkel’s not justifying his deception with a disgustingly mudslinging memoir.
Finkel’s book, ironically titled True Story, is nothing if not self-castigating. And unlike Blair’s execrable Burning Down My Master’s House, it is well written, gripping, and as free of guile as it is packed with apologies.
The great thing is that it’s not all about Michael Finkel. In fact, Finkel and his transgression (he created a composite character in a Times article about slavery and poverty in the Ivory Coast) is merely an interesting subplot to the real subject of a gripping piece of reportage. It’s the story of Christian Longo, who was convicted in Newport, Oregon, for murdering his wife and three young children in December of 2001 and then fleeing to Mexico.
So, what’s the connection between the stories?
Strange, but true – and Finkel goes to great documentary lengths to assure the reader it’s true – the two events happened at roughly the same time.
On the night before Finkel, freshly fired from “the job I had coveted all my life,” was to read about his misdeeds in a New York Times Editor’s Note. When he received a phone call at his Montana home from a reporter at the Oregonian in Portland. Longo, on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, had been caught in Cancun. And, it turned out, he had assumed the identity of one Michael Finkel of the New York Times.
Reeling from his firing, but still possessing enough professional clarity to know this was a story to pursue, Finkel devoted the next year of his life to finding out all he could about Longo, including why the murderer chose him to impersonate.
There are a number of interesting parallels between the two and, for the first half of the book, Finkel alternates chapters between Longo’s story and his own. The overarching themes of True Story remain vivid throughout; it’s about deception, narcissism, self-delusion and approval-seeking taken to dangerous extremes.
And lying, of course. The entire 312 pages is predicated on lies. Not the text itself. Finkel and his publishers say he hired an outside fact-checker to pore over the manuscript and verify even the tiniest detail. But it was lies that got Finkel, a rising star at the Times at 32, fired, and it was a series of lies that sent Longo’s life spiraling murderously out of control.
The difference is only a matter of scale.
As Finkel writes midway through the memoir, after he had become the only person – journalist or otherwise – in whom Longo would confide, “Longo was the only person in my life I felt morally superior to.”
You know your self-esteem is shot when only a cold-blooded killer eventually headed to death row makes you look good. That’s only part of what Finkel saw in Longo. The reporter in him saw a boffo story, and he immediately thought “book” and “redemption,” a way to jump-start his career.
And what did Longo get out of the relationship?
We don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the narrative, but let’s just say that both men used the other for personal gain.
Finkel writes that he found Longo charming and charismatic, articulate and good looking. He even flattered Finkel by telling him he stole his identity because he liked Finkel’s writing so much.
So begins the seduction. As the two men exchange weekly phone calls, long, rambling letters and occasionally face-to-face visits, Finkel expertly sketches a portrait of a killer as a regular guy pushed to extremes. But is he getting duped? Quite possibly, but that doesn’t stop the bulldog reporter in Finkel from plunging ahead. The men form something of a friendship – Finkel even elicits advice from Longo about his commitment to his girlfriend – and help each other through their tough times.
But then, in the final third of the book, the tone changes and Longo’s deception turned dark as the trial nears. In court, Finkel finally hearing the prosecution’s evidence against Longo and it “was the beginning of the end of my relationship with Longo.” The reader is only too happy to see Finkel, who comes across as a decent guy who had a horrible lapse in judgment, turn on Longo. During the trial, all becomes clear to Finkel: “I hated him. I hated him in the intense way that you can only hate someone you’d once truly cared about.”In befriending a world-class liar, Finkel was able to transcend his own “haze of dishonesty” and learn some things about himself. The reader leaves him in a better place – and leaves Longo where he belongs, on Death Row.