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

Originally posted 2015-11-04 17:00:06.

I don’t really associate Jonah Hill or James Franco with serious films. I do know that they are both trying to go that route, and if the movie is anything like the book, True Story just might be their ticket. I only wonder how long it will take Franco to re-release the book with his face on the cover.

I devoured this memoir in less than a day, which is a true rarity for me anymore. That being said, I do love the true crime genre and I tend to forget that I love it until I see a preview for a movie based on one. In True Story, Michael Finkel gets canned from his job as a reporter for The New York Times heavily concocting an article about child slavery in Africa. Disgraced and ashamed, he prepares to hibernate until the worst of the scandal passes; however, a random phone call from another journalist changes everything.

Finkel learns that his identity had been briefly commandeered by Christian Longo, a man who had fled to Cancun following the murder of his wife and three children. Of course, that doesn’t look shady at all, at least that’s what Longo himself thought. Longo was apprehended by the law and returned to Oregon, where he was officially charged with the murders. Finkel decides to reach out to Longo to see why on earth this guy felt compelled to borrow the moniker of a quasi-known journalist such as himself. This led to an expansive correspondence that included countless letters and even weekly phone calls as Longo prepared to go to trial for the murders.

The memoir goes on to recount the tireless minutiae that Longo and Finkel shared with each other, very few of which pertained to the murders themselves. Longo is portrayed as handsome and charismatic, traits which allowed him to con people throughout his entire life while experiencing little, if any, consequences. His story regarding what exactly happened to his family wildly oscillates. Read it for yourself, the twists and turns are a bit too much to recount here. Finkel comes across as remorseful for his actions, yet he offers no apologies for cutting ties with Longo as soon as he had enough material for this book, which certainly calls into question the claimed depth of the relationship.

I know that the draw of this book is supposed to be the glimpse into the mind of a murderer, but at times, I was more intrigued by Finkel’s psyche. Finkel unabashedly uses Longo for personal gain. The second Finkel gets the phone call about his stolen identity, he starts formulating a plan for this very book – a plan focused on his own redemption no matter what the cost. Readers can’t help but come away with the distinct impression that Finkel only claims remorse as a means of distancing his personality from Longo’s; there are some undeniable parallels between the two men, and since this memoir is Finkel’s chance to prove to everyone that he is not a liar, it makes since that he subtly characterizes himself as the superior human being.

True Story is intense. Sure, the murders and the motive behind them kept me intrigued, but the real appeal here is the relationship between Finkel and Longo. These two men enter into this means of self-preservation under the guise of friendship, but when the friendship becomes too real, they both seem a little stumped as to how to move forward. The result is a fascinating power struggle that makes for a must-read memoir, and hopefully a must-see movie.

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