Citizen K

Charles Taylor reviews "Citizen K" by Mark Singer.

Published December 6, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

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.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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