The risk with basing any novel on a true story is that — as the saying goes — truth is so frequently stranger than fiction. Choosing to novelize the curious tale of Christian Gerhartsreiter, the Rockefeller impersonator and con man who abducted his own daughter in 2009, is a particularly gutsy move.
So it’s a testament to Amity Gaige’s deftness as an author that her new novel, “Schroder,” is a fascinating psychological portrait of love, longing and self-loathing — despite the countless magazine articles and TV special reports that Gerhartsreiter’s exploits have already inspired.
“Schroder” is the story of Erik Schroder, an East German refugee who — embarrassed by his humble beginnings, and harboring emotional damage from the early loss of his mother — decides as a teenager to entirely reinvent himself. As Gerhartsreiter did, he abandons his German name and history and (without his father’s awareness) begins pretending that he’s a WASPy distant relation of American royalty.
Calling himself “Eric Kennedy,” he marries and fathers a girl, Meadow, before the marriage falls apart (thanks in part to a series of bad parenting decisions on Schroder’s part, such as keeping a rotting fox corpse as a lesson about the nature of death). When the divorce turns bitter and his limited custody is threatened, he kidnaps Meadow and takes to the road. At this point, the resemblance to the true story of Gerhartsreiter ends and Gaige’s own inventions take over.
At first, Schroder deludes himself that he hasn’t abducted his daughter but is “merely very, very late to return her from an agreed-upon visit” — and then he takes her to a bar and sees his face on TV. Things quickly go from bad to worse: As they attempt to elude the police, their existence grows more and more marginal until Meadow ends up seriously endangered and Kennedy realizes how fatal a mistake he’s made.
Written as a jailhouse confession to his ex-wife, “Schroder’s” closest literary relative is probably “Lolita” (minus the pedophilia): The compellingly unreliable narrator of European background, the East Coast road trip with the precocious child, the narcissism, the unsavory motels, the whiff of danger. “Schroder” easily stands up to the comparison.
This is a high-wire act of a novel: Gaige’s central character may be an unhinged kidnapper, an impersonator, and in all likelihood mentally ill, but she somehow renders him relatable, his actions understandable (if not forgivable).
Gaige nimbly swings from satire to tragedy and back again, drawing a touchingly lyrical portrait of a sad and yet comical figure. Her Erik Schroder is perpetually a heartbroken little boy, whose stiff and formal father never explains why his mother failed to defect to West Germany with them.
“What do I remember of my own tender years, long ago? The wheezing of the kettle. My mother and myself deep in parallel silence. The pleasure of a banana. The friendship of a dog. A song about Lenin’s forehead. Flurries of pollen in springtime, steam tents, a cream-colored Trabant that suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns, searchlights, salted caramels in wax paper, the unique humiliation of being dressed in a bow tie. That’s it. So little, and so much.”
It’s somehow completely plausible that he would adopt the mantle of Eric Kennedy to attend an East Coast boys camp, discovering in the process that the new identity allows him to escape the pain of his mother’s abandonment: “When I was Eric Kennedy, she did not exist at all.” And yet, as the author points out, “There is no such thing as forgetting.”
Schroder is most obviously a study of identity and longing and the role the public plays in defining the private self. (As Schroder puts it: “My identity became predicated on some sort of collective agreement. In other words, I was Eric Kennedy only inasmuch as I could secure a consensus that I was.”). Not only Schroder, but everyone he encounters — from gawky, bespectacled Meadow, who dreams of being Rapunzel, to a living-in-the-past ‘80s rock muse that Schroder beds at a lakeside cabin — lives a sort of double life.
And yet the book, at its heart, is a love story. Schroder may be deluded — and a woefully irresponsible parent — but his touching, sincere adoration of his daughter and ex-wife is his great redemption. Even as he’s running away from the police, hiding in derelict cabins and off-the-grid mountain camps, he’s bizarrely happy because of the fatherly intimacy he’s experiencing with his daughter.
“This was the best part of my life,” Kennedy tries to tell Meadow, toward the end of the novel — a line that came directly from Gerhartsreiter’s mouth. Much to Gaige’s credit, we believe it.
Brown is the author of “This Is Where We Live.”
Twelve: 272 pp., $21.99