The only thing Americans love more than a scoundrel is a reformed scoundrel. If Bonnie & Clyde were alive today, they’d rob banks in the morning, shed a tear with Oprah in the afternoon, then peddle their anguished memoirs on late-night TV.
In recent years, this cycle of expiation has drawn practitioners from what ought to be a bastion of truth: the nation’s newspapers. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass concocted false stories in The New York Times and New Republic and had books out before the ink had dried on their corrections—or so it seemed.
Michael Finkel is the latest shamed journalist to go from fabulist to apologist, but unlike Glass and Blair—who blamed the institutions that indulged them—the only person Finkel blames is himself: the Michael Finkel who falsified a New York Times Magazine story about slave labor on Ivory Coast cocoa farms.
But there’s another Michael Finkel. That Michael Finkel was apprehended by FBI agents in Cancun, Mexico. Several weeks prior, that Michael Finkel (whose real name is Christian Longo) had murdered his wife and three kids, stuffed them in suitcases, and dropped them into Yaquina Bay in Oregon. Upon fleeing the country, Longo just happened to adopt the name of a journalist about to be defrocked by The New York Times.
It’s hard not to marvel at what a stroke of luck this was for the real Michael Finkel. Without Longo, he would be stumbling humbly before the altar of forgiveness, or still waiting out the shitstorm in his Bozeman home. Instead, we have this strange, bizarre and grimly compelling Jekyll & Hyde story. By telling his own story alongside that of a sociopath, Finkel leeches sympathy from readers without their even knowing they’ve given it.
The book opens with Finkel learning of this strange identity theft. He quickly puts away thoughts of going into deep hibernation, pounces on Longo and seduces him into a casual friendship. They trade letters, sip martinis over the phone (actually only Finkel does the sipping; Longo, of course, is in jail), and in no time Finkel has a sketchy outline of what brought a preppy, charming and seemingly harmless father to the brink of murder.
Sadly, what emerges from their collusion is just another mundane story of a man living beyond his means. Longo was desperate to provide a lifestyle for his wife and kids that he couldn’t maintain. When he cracked, he cut corners. And then he stole. It started with filching from a cash register at work, but progressed to forging checks, lifting credit cards, ripping off identities, even driving a minivan off a dealer’s lot so his wife would have something smart to drive.
Even though the evidence overwhelmingly points fingers at Longo, he doesn’t tell Finkel his story until the reporter has given the appearance of having expunged every trace of doubt and mistrust in him. This is a delicate and creepy dance, and to his credit, Finkel choreographs it skillfully on the page. To read True Story is to yo-yo back and forth between sympathy and disgust, just as Finkel himself must have done when he had to woo his way back into Longo’s good graces after sharing information with another writer. One can hardly blame the victim’s family for scowling at Finkel when the trial rolls around.
Finkel forged a relationship with Longo. And like any relationship, this one has its squabbles. As Finkel depicts, following this story has put him in the awkward position of sussing out someone else’s lies, of believing their stories and then being heartbroken when that trust is broken. Surely the ironies of this role reversal are not entirely lost on Finkel, but the occasional nod to the reader could have reassured us of that fact. After all, again and again, the one-time liar questions the veracity of his subject’s story. “Everything you’ve written to me is true?” Finkel asks at one point. And then he asks again: “There’s nothing you want to take back?”
Of course, not all of it was true, and even Longo’s trial failed to elicit the mea culpa his wife’s family wanted. Even after he’s been sentenced, Longo begins altering his story—again. Finally, he says he will tell the truth. But will he?
Finkel, however, is more than willing to offer his mea culpa and fess up. “And so the last thing I want to say about my Times article is this,” he writes. “I’m sorry.”
It’s hard not to feel Finkel is being sincere here. You even want to believe he will never betray our trust again. But Longo’s story teaches us another lesson: People tell us what we want to hear when it serves them, and sometimes—as in the case of this odd, skillfully told, but ultimately manipulative memoir—that just so happens to be the truth.