True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

True Story, a strange amalgam of confessional and true crime, manages to surpass both genres with an original and fascinating clarity of narrative. Author Michael Finkel has had the singular experience of being publicly shamed in the New York Times for making up a story, but he’s no Jayson Blair. His account of his transgression is, on the whole, non-delusional and honestly soul-searching. Finkel does very well at describing the self-hatred and abject despair that followed his being found out at the Times — a wallow that coincided with the encounter that birthed this book.

Not only that, he does a good job as well at anatomizing how journalistic follies like this one come about. Anybody who’s ever worked at a publication knows how much human error goes into producing printed copy — and will recognize with chagrin the scene in which Finkel starts down the garden path to fabrication. Having returned from Africa, where he’d been sent to report a story on child slavery, Finkel becomes convinced that said child slavery does not exist, and tries to convince his editor that the story should be about how the media and humanitarian organizations collaborated to convince the world that it did. The editor asks if he can do that by “telling a detailed story of one boy … and through this one worker artfully [clarifying] the fine line between slavery and poverty.”

Though Finkel has a suspicion that his reporting, albeit extensive, might not have provided him with the material to do this, he says “I began to rationalize … There was some part of me that knew, right then, that I could not fulfill my editor’s request. I should have said so immediately. But I sensed that my success as a writer was almost solely in [his editor’s] hands, and I felt a powerful need to please her.” A need that’s all too familiar, and human.

Finkel’s transgression, thus articulated, seems much more comprehensible than those of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Christian Longo’s, on the other hand, is not, and Finkel’s journey towards understanding that is the subject of the book. Finkel becomes aware of Longo when he is told that the younger man, while on the run from the law in Mexico after killing his wife and three children, took “Michael Finkel” as an alias and told everybody that he was a reporter from the New York Times. The two Michael Finkels begin a correspondence while Longo is in jail, and many of Longo’s well-written letters are excerpted within the book.

One of the achievements of the book is in its descriptions of the Longo’s life as a small family with very little money. I was reminded of the book by Gary Gilmore’s brother Mikal, Shot in the Heart, in which he describes the dismal early Gilmore family life. Their con-man father dragged the Gilmores across the United States, uprooting the three small boys at a day’s notice, leaving them isolated and unsure of their moorings.

Longo’s crimes, and his own sudden moves across the country, start because he’s in search of a consumer ideal that he can’t provide for his family without these lies and thefts. In a typical episode, Longo starts a construction company without enough capital, promises his wife a minivan, and “doesn’t want to subject his wife to undue stress by admitting they were broke”. Solution: he takes a minivan for a test drive, using a fake license, and never comes back. He embezzles, fakes checks, passes stolen goods. As written by Finkel, Longo’s life story is a unique American wander-story, in which, through a confused, hopped-up concept of masculine duty, a man digs himself into a life as an outlaw on the fringe.

You, as well as Finkel, think that you’re starting towards an understanding of Longo’s psychology, and wonder how he could possibly have committed the crimes of which he’s accused. Then, in the dreadful final part of the book, in which Finkel attends Longo’s trial, you realize once again how little you can know for sure about a person with such a small conscience. In this final section, Finkel brings us to the gripping end of what can only be called a moral journey, in which you’re called upon to look fully in the face crimes of a staggeringly large scale.