Review

'Whipping Boy' digs up childhood bully and a fascinating story

Allen Kurzweil's search for boyhood tormentor serves as a gripping, international saga in 'Whipping Boy'

Revenge is a dish best served between the cold, hard covers of a book.

That is the lesson of Allen Kurzweil's "Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully." Kurzweil, a bestselling novelist and children's book author, is an engaging narrator, notably lighthearted considering the obsessive nature of this book.

When Kurzweil was a boy, his father died unexpectedly; as his mother tried to sort out her family's next steps, Allen spent a year in a Swiss boarding school in Villars. It was meant to be a refuge: The Alps had been a favorite of both father and son.

But soon after he arrived in fall 1971, he met his roommates, including the bully of the book's subtitle, Cesar. At 10, Kurzweil was the youngest of the boys at the school and also one of the smallest. The school, Aiglon, was an odd mash-up of traditional, buttoned-up British institutions like Eton and the back-to-nature self-reliance of German health clubs.

Neither culture was the kind that had recourse for a boy whose roommate gave him nightmares, fed him frightening foods and beat him while listening to "Jesus Christ Superstar." Allen finally told those in charge when his father's watch disappeared, but it was never found.

Kurzweil, a self-admitted obsessive, is aware that he's carried the wounds of childhood further than some might. His debut novel, published 20 years later, "records the struggles of a fatherless boy apprenticed to a watchmaker," he writes, "By all outward appearances, 'A Case of Curiosities' had nothing to do with my experiences in Villars. But … certain parallels emerge." And after his son was subjected to bullying, Kurzweil wrote a children's book inspired by both their experiences; the evil nemesis in "Leon and the Spitting Image" (2003) was drawn to look like Cesar.

In the early days of the Internet and social networks, Kurzweil tried fruitlessly to find out what had become of Cesar. There were several complicating factors: Cesar was probably, but not certainly, from the Philippines; over the years, he used a variety of last names; even the alumni office at Aiglon didn't know where to find him.

Once Kurzweil turns up the man he thinks is his childhood nemesis, it takes several chapters — fascinating chapters — for Kurzweil to explain what he'd gotten up to.

He discovers that Cesar was involved with a multibillion-dollar banking organization, the Badische Trust Consortium, that made loans in the hundreds-of-millions range. The principals — a prince, a baron and a colonel — wore cravats and medals, flourished fountain pens, carried letters from the best investment companies, met with clients in elite legal firms and international hotels.

But there were no billions: It was a very, very, very good con.

The man who had once bullied Kurzweil turned out to be the group's frontman, bringing in clients who deposited funds to secure loans — loans that never materialized, deposits that weren't returned.

Kurzweil's fixation on Cesar fuels an investigation into the entire complex criminal enterprise: How much did Cesar know? How deeply involved was he? Kurzweil digs into convoluted financial records and boxes of legal documents (three of the men involved, including Cesar, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud; the fourth's whereabouts are unknown) and emerges with a coherent story.

The story of the Trust — complete with imperious demands, last-minute international travel, and fake knighthoods for celebrities such as Liza Minnelli — is fascinating on its own, and Kurzweil's telling has a kind of spirited bafflement. Who would have thought that one's childhood nemesis would grow up to be a genuine bad guy?

The book wouldn't be complete without Kurzweil coming face to face with the man who'd figured so prominently in his imagination for so long. "Whipping Boy" is structured so that we experience, through early chapters that can feel padded with perfunctory emails and uninformative dead-ends, the kind of drawn-out anxiety and anticipation that Kurzweil felt during his quest to reach Cesar.

To say too much about what happens when they finally sit down would be a spoiler, but it is, as the reader might guess, both what Kurzweil expected and not, what he needed and something else entirely.

At one point when they are talking, Cesar tells Kurzweil about the hotel where the Trust stayed in Zurich. "Cesar struggles for a name I have no trouble remembering," Kurzweil writes. In practice, there is something painful about this, that as the details of Cesar's life have slipped away from him, they've been stockpiled by his victim-turned-pursuer.

And yet at the same time, it's what makes writing an art. The real life that Cesar lived may have faded in places, as memory does, but an obsessive author and gifted storyteller can shape it into a tale worth telling.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

Whipping Boy
The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully

Allen Kurzweil
Harper: 304 pp., $27.99

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