The farce Mark Singer describes in Citizen K might be called a journalist's version of the Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological phenomenon where captive bonds with captor. The irony in this case is that Singer's "captor" was himself a prisoner, Brett Kimberlin, a suspected murderer and bomber and a convicted pot smuggler and dealer. In the weeks before George Bush's 1988 election, Kimberlin told the press that one of his early '70s customers was then-law-student "Danny" Quayle.
In 1992, Singer, a New Yorker staff reporter, wrote a 22,000-word article for the magazine detailing Kimberlin's claims that Bureau of Prisons officials had denied his constitutional rights by preventing him from making his claims about Quayle to the press. The article led to the deal for this book, a deal that gave Kimberlin a cut of the profits. But, as Singer investigated his subject's drug-running past - and transformation into a jailhouse lawyer with a prodigious taste for litigation as well as a would-be player on the national political scene - he felt a dawning certainty that he had been had.
Citizen K - the title refers both to Kimberlin's view of himself as Kafkaesque victim and to his talent for the noble posturing of Charles Foster Kane - is a very sly piece of work. It's not often that journalists, the most defensive of professionals, admit to being conned. Singer alerts us from the start that there's something off in Kimberlin's stories, but by allowing him the room to spin his tales, he lets us experience Kimberlin's seductive powers. Singer's public revelation that he was a willing sucker will almost surely prompt other journalists to claim that they would never have been fooled. But his demonstration of how easy it is to be taken in by a master prevaricator like Kimberlin should also make them uncomfortable. Here is a con man who can convert every evidence of his guilt into proof of his innocence, who can flatter the press and lawyers who take up his case that they are serving not only their profession but American justice.
Singer's exhaustive, and ultimately exhausting, tale takes place in what he calls "a black hole, a dense and perhaps impenetrable expanse of doubt." This very bizarre comedy is Singer's payback, an admirable attempt to stake out boundaries on ground that keeps shifting beneath his feet. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
After Garry Trudeau in "Doonesbury," the New Yorker's Mark Singer was possibly the most prominent journalist to sympathetically report allegations that convict Brett Kimberlin had sold marijuana to Dan Quayle when the Vice-President was a law student. Indeed, Singer signed a contract with Kimberlin to write a book, but Kimberlin turns out to be a top-flight con manas the author reveals with dismay and near admiration. So this picaresque detective story has a mea culpa at its heart, an effort to explain how certain things--such as former Harvard Law dean Erwin Griswold's support for Kimberlin's court appeal and Kimberlin's muzzling by federal officials--helped build an edifice of sand. Singer conscientiously reconstructs Kimberlin's history of crime--he was a drug smuggler and, mostly likely, the man behind some vicious bombings in Indianapolis. Some of this narrative gets tedious, yet it's part of Singer's effort to contrast facts with Kimberlin's confident but "apparitional" explanations. Leavening the story are Singer's tales of Kimberlin's charmed life behind bars: he wangled unlimited long-distance phone service, became the jailhouse lawyer for numerous Mafiosi and snared an impressive legal support group. Now free, the former dope smuggler helps ship commodities to Ukraine; but when Kimberlin (with Singer in tow) had a chance to meet Quayle at a book signing, he refused to confront him. Quayle, it now seems, deserves apologies.
New Yorker staff writer Singer (Funny Money, Knopf, 1985) tells the story of Brett Kimberlin, a self-promoting Midwestern boy in a hurry. While still in his teens he was part-owner of a legitimate Indianapolis business and launching a more lucrative career dealing tons of marijuana, some of which in 1988 he claimed to have sold to vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle. An uncharged suspect in a murder case but convicted in a series of bombings, Kimberlin became an indefatigable jailhouse lawyer whose "political prisoner" suit against the Bureau of Prisons was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. He is now, by outward appearance, a successful businessman. Weird but, unsettlingly, not as weird as the subtitle suggests, because Kimberlin comes off as a fairly typical hustler who learned how to con long before he became a convict. For larger crime collections.-Jim G. Burns, Ottumwa, Iowa
An absorbing investigation into the life and tall tales of Brett Kimberlin, the jailed drug dealer who won brief notoriety by claiming to have sold drugs to Dan Quayle.
At first glance, Citizen K would seem to have little going for it: a subject who would hardly seem to deserve such attention and an author (Funny Money, 1985, etc.) who now seems bent on excusing himself for an overly sympathetic (and much criticized) 1992 profile of Kimberlin in the New Yorker. But this examination exonerates itself early and thoroughly. Kimberlin, an intellectually gifted and cunning drug dealer, jailhouse lawyer, and liar, turns out to be an intriguing figure. From his drug abusing early days to his eventual arrest and conviction as the figure responsible for a series of baffling bombings in Indiana, Kimberlin's criminal exploits are recounted in fast-paced, engaging prose. Most readers will be eager for the chapters on Kimberlin's claims about Quayle (he insisted that Quayle, when in law school, had regularly bought marijuana from him), and Singer does not disappoint. Through dogged reporting and with a healthy skepticism, Singer sorts through the conflicting accounts and reveals a man whose idea of the truth is utterly malleable. Kimberlin, it becomes clear, never encountered a situation that he couldn't somehow exploit for gain. Mindful of his early role in promoting Kimberlin's claims about Quayle, Singer is full of contrition, presenting himself as having been sucked into Kimberlin's "narcissistic universe, a place far beyond the gravity-bound realities of politics, truth, and justice." But instead of drowning in regret, the repentant author turns his book into a lively revenge tale. In the delightful final chapters he cleverly tricks Kimberlin into exposing his own mendacity.
For politicos, journalists, or anyone who has ever been pulled into the distorted worldview of a dangerous smooth talker, the story of Brett Kimberlin is a valuable one, expertly unearthed and reported by Singer.