Friday, January 09, 2015

I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman

If Newt Gingrich is famously a dumb guy's idea of what a smart guy sounds like, then Chuck Klosterman is a shallow guy's idea of what a profound guy sounds like. He's never seen a Deep Thought (in the Jack Handey-ian sense) that he couldn't somehow tie into KISS, or his favorite moments of the 1996 NBA playoffs, and has an unshakable sense of the importance of those strange and shallow thoughts. If you've never read him, take your favorite talking head from one of those ESPN everything-about-sports shows, and add in extra heavy-metal and bad-'90s-TV comparisons for a decent simulacrum of the Chuck Klosterman Experience. He also has a stunning belief in the wisdom of crowd, or maybe just the wisdom of common knowledge: anything generally accepted in pop culture is literally undeniable to Klosterman.

(That's been consistent throughout his writing life, I see as I peruse what I've written about his previous essay collections -- in reverse chronological order: Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman IV, and Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. His first book, Fargo Rock City, which is more unified and specific, probably still holds up best. And taking half a decade off from Klosterman has led me right back to the same things that annoyed me the last time around -- I found myself nodding at my own wisdom at what I wrote about those older books. But note that I'm not proud of myself, then or now, for that.)

After taking a few years off from his traditional dorm-common-room-scholar act to write some novels, Klosterman came back to his old stomping grounds with 2013's I Wear the Black Hat, a collection of original essays about villains. And because I am weak and enjoy toying with my prey, I read it recently.

As usual, it's the standard Klosterman mix of reflexive contrarianism, very particular pop-culture references, and ideas that aren't nearly as new as he thinks they are. Klosterman tends to circle his subjects, as his magpie mind leaps from one shiny object to another and his typing fingers gamely try to make up connections between the shiny bits. (Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn't.) Black Hat has a dozen essays, but its take on "villany" is much more concerned with Andrew Dice Clay, the Eagles, and Batman than it is with grappling with actual moral questions.

But that's to be expected from Klosterman: he's a very binary thinker, obsessed with setting up simple this-or-that dichotomies and then walking around them, beaming with pride. His idea of villains are cartoonish ones, based on the 1970s Oakland Raiders and the kind of Disney movies he's too cool to ever actually mention in his essays. Black Hat is not a book about evil, but about performance: after all these years, Klosterman is still essentially a music critic, and wants to complain about Bernie Goetz's stage presence.

This book is dull, banal, and trite, but it's also short, so it's not without its good points. Klosterman is still a very readable writer, in the old US newspaperman tradition, so it goes quickly as long as you don't stop to argue with every unsustainable assertion Klosterman throws your way (if you do, it will take forever). I can't actually recommend I Wear the Black Hat, but I don't mind the time I spent reading it and still find Klosterman amusing -- if not in the ways he'd presumably prefer.

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