My posing grew more serious when I transferred to Princeton. It was my father’s old school, but it was also the City on a Hill for a Minnesota kid with literary tendencies who’d read F. Scott Fitzgerald. When the cab from the airport dropped me at the gate and I beheld the oxidized green tigers guarding the worn stone steps of Nassau Hall, a building that briefly housed the nation’s capital back when the nation was governed by a men’s club small enough to gather on its steps, I knew that rebellion and artsy nonconformity were my only viable social paths. Acceptance by Princeton’s golden elites—the kids who knew “The Vineyard” from “The Cape” and understood in some thoughtless, genetic way that the best clothes are those that disintegrate with character, not the ones that forever look brand new—would require a full-scale brown-nosing campaign that I didn’t feel equipped for. My resentments would show; I’d give myself away. No, I would have to break in from the outside.
“Being myself” at Princeton involved some guesswork, but eventually I settled on a persona. I bought a black thrift-store raincoat and wore it everywhere, rarely taking my hands out my pockets except when I had a chance to startle someone by whipping out my silver Zippo and lighting his cigarette with its oily flame. I wrote and helped direct a trio of imitation Beckett plays whose characters stood at strange angles to one another as they spoke their stiff, emphatic lines, which weren’t to be confused with natural speech because there is no such thing as natural speech, not in the theater and certainly not in life, the most artificial form of theater because it denies being theater at all. These were maxims I took from books by Frenchmen. The duty of the artist, I read somewhere, probably while I was smoking hash, which is when books about the artist’s duty most appealed to me, is to show that artifice is all. That’s why I wore my raincoat on clear days. That’s why I ate Hershey bars for breakfast, dipping them in tea. That’s why I told my actors to face the EXIT signs when they said, “I love you” to each other before walking off in opposite directions. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when certain classmates from rich New York families and stern New England prep schools began to nod and smile at me at parties, sometimes even slipping off to talk to me once their real friends were too drunk to notice. I was approachable for an angry loner. As the approaches grew more frequent, I wasn’t even that angry anymore; the ugly raincoat just made it seem that way. The fact was that I yearned to ditch the thing—it bored me—but by then it was part of my brooding-playwright image, which was bringing me success with girls, especially the girls that I liked best: rich ones who’d spent years in therapy and treated sex as naked theater.
In time I would graduate from Princeton with highest honors, in part because I learned to speak the language of prestigious cultural subversion; the language of paradox, of endless loops, of ever-receding, ever-dissolving everything, of “truth claims” instead of truths, of paradigms lost. I left the place not knowing who I was or what I was or why I ought to care, since selfhood, I’d learned, is nothing more than this: a pronoun (“I”), a verb (“to be”), a tense (the present), and any grammatical sentence that starts this way about which one cares to make a special truth claim:
“I am Walter Kirn.”
By the time I left college, I questioned even that one.
Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, Liveright; 1 edition (March 10, 2014)