CUSTODY FLIGHT

By Jonathan Dee

Published: March 3, 2013

Fiction is all about experimental selves, so it’s not hard to see what drew Amity Gaige to the title character of her third novel, “Schroder.” In his grim urban youth, Erik Schroder picks up a summer camp brochure in his pediatrician’s office and is so smitten by the photographs of fearless, handsome boys leading an outdoorsy life that he concocts a fallen-aristocrat persona in order to apply for a scholarship. Rebranding himself as Eric Kennedy, he invents a personal history (in which he was born and raised in a small town “not far from Hyannis Port”) that does much more than get him into Camp Ossipee. It opens so many other social doors that he never really drops the pretense: he goes on to college, gets a job, marries and fathers a child, all as Eric Kennedy.

He is, for a few years at least, a happily self-made American man. When his life starts to sour, though – when his increasingly grandiose, erratic behavior costs him not only his job but his marriage – Schroder’s commitment to his false identity becomes a trap, since he can’t appeal for help through legal or governmental channels without exposing that identity as a fraud. He reaches a breaking point, of sorts, after his estranged wife threatens to cut off his right to unsupervised visitation with their 6-year-old daughter, Meadow: Schroder’s panicked, martyred response is to skip town with the child in a stolen Mini Cooper, trying to repair his relationship with her while also staying carefully, if improvisationally, ahead of the law.

By now, the reader with any sort of tabloid consciousness will have thought, “Hold on, this guy reminds me of someone.” That someone is a con man named Christian Gerhartsreiter, better known as Clark Rockefeller, who in 2008 kidnapped his daughter in the midst of a custody dispute, exposing in the process the aspirational bogusness of what even his intimates had believed to be his name. His exploits earned him the sort of fleeting, cheese-ball fame best embodied by the inevitable cable-television biopic (“Who Is Clark Rockefeller?”).

The essence of the ersatz Rockefeller/Kennedy character is of course an epic, pathological narcissism, and this Gaige gets impressively right – which may be something of a Pyrrhic victory, since Schroder’s role as narrator ensures that his story will have only one fully developed character. That his wife and even his beloved daughter never quite come across as real people is no criticism of Gaige; it’s simply the fundamental compromise her material requires her to make. “O tiny imitator! Compact mirror!” is Schroder’s response to Meadow’s identification as a “gifted” child. No other figure is ever as real to him as he is to himself.

“Schroder” takes the form of a jailhouse confession, a passionate, one-draft apologia written at the behest of Kennedy/Schroder’s court-appointed lawyer. This documentary form is not unfamiliar (see, for example, “Lolita” or “The Postman Always Rings Twice”), and enjoying it requires a particular suspension of disbelief, an ability to reconcile the supposedly extemporized urgency of the text with the fact that some passages have clearly been given a high rhetorical polish. Long sections of Schroder’s confession are addressed to his traumatized wife, with whom he still imagines reconciling, notwithstanding his recent, forced admission that even her own last name is a lie.

The abduction takes place near Schroder’s post-collegiate hometown, Albany; he gets to the Canadian border but, in one of the novel’s best scenes, turns back remorsefully after Meadow chafes at his plan for her to lie quietly in the trunk of the car. Instead he heads across Lake Champlain, through Vermont and New Hampshire and ultimately as far south as Boston, where his typically sentimental and ill-conceived plan is to introduce Meadow to her grandfather, with whom Schroder himself has had no contact for many years.

Gaige writes beautifully about these regions of the country – from the picturesque Green Mountains to the soul-shrinking winter landscape of North Albany: “In February, the flora and fauna are dead, the traffic turns the snow the color of tobacco juice, the children are shuttered away in their schools, and the long days are silent. The cats grow wet and skinny, and the rain grows hard and bitter, as if it is not rain but the liquid redistribution of collective conflict; it’s a frigid rain, a rain that pricks the skin of any upturned face, a damning rain that makes men eke corks from bottles. O February, you turn our hearts to stone.”

Despite his ur-American alias, Schroder is not actually a citizen of the United States at all. He’s a resident alien who came to this country at age 9 after escaping with his father from East Germany four years earlier. Why East Germany? Certainly Schroder – and Gaige – is wise to its pertinent metaphorical quality: “Sure, we could consider Germany in terms of ‘divorce.’ The ‘divorce’ of Germany led to a kind of ‘shared custody’ in which several monolithic parent powers were meant to maturely resolve disputes.” Still, the detail itself is not merely suggested but in some sense legitimated by the fact that Germany is also where the real “Clark Rockefeller” was born.

Which brings up a thorny point. There is something a little acquiescent about a novel that fictionalizes an already widely known, real-life event (and I say this as someone who once wrote such a novel himself). The story’s claim on our attention is not self-generated: it has a key and, furthermore, it relies on our knowing something about that key, yet not too much, so that we as readers might grant the author license not just to alter the truth (big deal) but to appropriate it, to claim it as his or her own patch of created ground. Again, it is no knock on the abundant talents of Gaige – who writes gorgeously, who imagines sympathetically – to say that what distinguishes this novel’s genetic material from that of the aforementioned television movie is not a simple thing to put one’s finger on.

Somewhere in rural Vermont, Schroder is made aware of what he might well have expected from the start – that the cops are not far behind. The novel’s climactic chapter is also its best conceived: the item that brings about Schroder’s downfall is perfect, both dramatic and mundane. The reader will realize that he or she has been given every detail necessary to see what was coming, yet didn’t, which is plot-making of the highest order.

Schroder’s self-defense has its manic highs and depressive lows, but in the end maybe the best case for showing him mercy is made by his abandoned father, in a flashback to a day early in Erik’s American childhood when he fled from a challenge laid down by a schoolyard bully. “Of course you did not fight,” Otto Schroder counsels his son, in German. “It is not natural to stand and fight. The truth is, it’s natural to run.”

(Jonathan Dee is the author of six novels, including ``The Privileges'' and, published this month, ``A Thousand Pardons.'')
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Schroder starts with Eric Kennedy writing his statement to the police, but is doing so in the form of a letter to his wife of whom he is now divorced. Eric Kennedy has been charged with kidnapping his only child, Meadow.

He begins his... more

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