by Danny Marroquin
The tradition of the public intellectual is just about extinct, unfortunately this comes at a time when the country could use a few more rational thinkers. William Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr., they had their day, and the hours were mostly bookish. Then MTV, then Guns n’ Roses, the Internet, and a bunch of other stuff happened. Journalist Chuck Klosterman’s first book “Fargo Rock City” was an intellectual document of heavy metal — a concept that probably marked him as loved or hated by readers for the rest of his career.
His third book, my favorite, “Killing Yourself to Live” made driving around America to see nothing thrilling (there’s some talk of “intellectual freedom” in “I Wear the Black Hat,” but it’s in “Killing Yourself to Live” that freedom in connection-making started to take off). He sold so many books writing about his obsessions that now those obsessions are energies in and of themselves. In “Eating the Dinosaur” he picked topics as random as Britney Spears, Nirvana and the West Coast Offense and used them to zero in on unifying ideas beginning to consume him: authenticity, reality in a mediated universe, self-regard, the spiritual quality of Americans’ behavior toward the celebrities they consume.
Using pop, and now sports, standards he has somehow managed to hang on as a relevant public intellectual, reaching a wider audience than the trained cultural critic. He starts from the point that we view our lives as a movie, and he proceeds to find how odd a movie it is we are making for ourselves.
He has stayed relevant by keeping a sense of humor over the years. But, as a review in the New York Times has said of “I Wear the Black Hat,” Klosterman’s prose also hovers over the abyss. For him to consistently wrestle with these dynamic moods in very clear sentences is an achievement that perhaps goes unnoticed by “serious” readers who dismiss Klosterman or his ideas. His joke is that when he was giving a reading in Austin two people in attendance were actually tripping acid during his reading. When he discovered this he said, “Well, I guess I’m not a literary writer.”
The “Villainous” Writer
This existential book opens up with Klosterman setting the scene. How is the book to be written? One of Klosterman’s charms is in writing with an immediacy that seems to include readers in the active process of writing; the world always seems at stake inside a Klosterman book. He talks to his editor and they have a disagreement. Klosterman tells the editor that people’s idea of bad changes over time. For example, this can be seen in people’s relationship with “Star Wars.” When you watch “Star Wars” as a child you related to Luke Skywalker. As you get older you feel like you understand Darth Vader better.
“I’m not sure all people would agree with your premise,” says the editor. “ I think most guys stop evolving at Han Solo.”
Then the editor says that maybe Klosterman wants to write this book because he fears that he himself is a villainous person. Klosterman ominously does not have an answer, and announces the beginning of his inquiry.
The book then becomes a sort of extemporaneous lexicography of obvious villains (OJ Simpson) and some ambiguous villains (Bill Clinton, Joe Paterno). In Klosterman’s dictionary a villain can be someone who has been vilified in the public opinion. Why is the Penn State coaching legend a villain: because he knew the most, and cared the least, or at least didn’t care enough to use his position to snuff out the staff member who was abusing young children. The “knows most/cares least” thesis is woven tightly throughout Klosterman’s book, with one understandable exception in Hitler, who cared a lot about many things.
Chuck’s source materials are roped in with a wide net. I was often surprised in reading about the greater public’s perceptions of certain figures in the book. For example, Saturday Night Live alumnus Chevy Chase is listed as a villain here. I realized that perhaps this actor was not as amiable as, say, Chris Farley, but the extent to which Klosterman has perceived meanness and villainy in the aloof demeanor of the actor was for me the most enlightened patch in the book, somehow. For Klosterman, it’s not as much that Chevy Chase was a bad person, but more that he was aloof. His aloofness causes a reactional change in the people who observe him. Now Klosterman is writing about us. At the end of his meditation on Chase, his prose takes a sharp turn towards an energy of surprising power. I’ll quote from it in full, and try to trim a quicker conclusion afterward. The passage feels worthy of isolation. It comes after talking about how Bill Murray once threw a punch at Chevy and called him a “medium talent”:
“ Virtually all funny people have a subterranean desire to be taken seriously. Nobody can explain why this happens, but funny people understand it intuitively. This is true for all of Chevy’s peers: His nemesis Murray pursued that goal once as a young man (1984’s The Razor’s Edge) and compulsively as an older one (2005’s Broken Flowers, 2009’s Get Low, 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson)….It’s something all mainstream comedians inevitably attempt–but not Chevy Chase. He has never taken a serious role (supposedly the closest he ever came was turning down Richard Gere’s role in American Gigolo). What makes this especially strange is how natural Chase would have been as a leading man: Of all the seventies comedians, he was the most classically handsome and the least emotively manic. He could have killed any role that required understatement; deadpan is his default setting. But this did not intrigue him. For the most part, he never tries to act at all. He just plays himself as a golfer (or as a detective, or as a bad father, or as an invisible man, or as whatever). When described as a professional worldview, the artistic choice seems admirable; It sounds less fake, less needy, and more self-aware. But that’s not how it comes across. It’s important not to take oneself too seriously, but Chevy refused to take himself seriously at all. It was as if he saw his own career as too ridiculous to care about. And something about that attitude slowly insults people. They feel as if the performer is mocking their support for his art, which even the performer views as meaningless. The fear with Chevy Chase is that every role is just another manifestation of “the Real Chevy”– that all these identical characters reflect the person he truly is, and that all his alleged arrogance is the product of believing he’s the only person smart enough to recognize how everything is a clumsy joke, including love and death and unedited emotion … He’s the only person smart enough not to care about anything. That’s what he means when he says, ‘I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.” It’s not something he’s happy about.
I see all of Chevy’s worst qualities in myself. But none of the good ones.”
We see here that Klosterman has a James Baldwinian ability to personalize his subjects, a strong point for an essayist, despite the easy critique otherwise. But here Chuck, like Chevy, doesn’t exactly like what he sees. The self factors into this entire study. I can’t help but think that despite its inevitable shades of unpleasantness the author’s self has added a grain of integrity to this text. At the end of the book Klosterman finds himself in a kind of dark place again, in front of the white light of the laptop.
He remembers that Great American novelist David Foster Wallace argued to millions of readers that ending the preoccupation with self was the goal of life. Klosterman boldly disagrees in “Black Hat”– “But if we are to believe Wallace succeeded at this goal, it must be the darkest success imaginable. I’m far less confident than DFW. I don’t think it’s feasible (I think people can pretend to do it, but they can’t pretend to themselves). I have slowly come to believe that overcoming this self-focused worldview is impossible, and that life can be experienced only through an imaginary mirror that allows us to occupy the center of a story no one is telling. I don’t think the human mind is capable of getting outside of that box, and I’m not sure if this limitation is particularly problematic.”
“I Wear the Black Hat” has some signature Klosterman humor, there’s nothing funnier than him simply listing the autobiographies NFL football players have written. But I’ve tried to pull choice quotes to highlight the growing seriousness of a body of work happening in front of us in real time. Sometimes people get confused about good writing. It can happen under Chevy Chase, or Kareem Abdul Jabar, or under a guy from North Dakota’s nose.
Klosterman paddles through the river of bad in ways that are becoming more appealing to us, in the blackness of our political night, and the popularity of the supurb study of evil, “Breaking Bad.” He has some of it in him. But who else is admitting to that? By exploring the self, a public survey of humanity is forged in a new way. At the end he seems to be at war against writing about the most obvious villain of all, Hitler. But when he does he doesn’t hesitate to do the appropriate, solemn and obvious thing. A thing he hasn’t done with care yet in his book writing career. He pulls out the early-era Bob Dylan quotes.
What’s more, as villains are checked off his docket, an interesting critique of the liberal class emerges. Since it’s done Klosterman-style, the result isn’t shrill (as heard in the heartfelt pleas of Chris Hedges). College-educated rock critics become contractually obligated to feel hate for a band (even if their lyrics are sort of interesting). The progressive historians who have crowned Muhammad Ali, didn’t think his cruel labeling of Joe Frazier as an Uncle Tom was a compromising event. In the public perception and from the left, Bill Clinton is still celebrated in the after light of his sex scandal, as the five humans closest to his transgression were significantly stained. Klosterman quotes the rigorous cultural historian Greil Marcus as saying he’s glad to live in a country where Bill Clinton led; it reads like maybe the first time Greil Marcus has been questioned. Julian Assange and the technocrats are re-writing history and exposing secret documents, while Klosterman wonders why we never got a choice about this happening.
All these unique moral gaps are as clear as day to Klosterman. He doesn’t transmit them into sermons. He’s done it in self-analysis, humor, and a kind of raw thought. He’s read the signs and images of culture and they’ve vibrated within him. He’s crafted his own kind of statement on certain events, ones that unfolded in front of us. He may see his own soul as compromised. Amid the fierce vacuum of the universe his sight can’t get past himself, and he wonders if he’s an “uninteresting person, thinking about himself because there’s nothing else to think about.”
Intellectual courage, like love, comes natural to few. Could it be that he doesn’t really see how much he has given us?
[Editor’s note: Danny said he heard that Austin story in Norman when Klosterman came through one year. I’ve missed him and David Sedaris, another wry author to visit Oklahoma, but if you’re a bibliophile with a wicked taste for music, pop culture, and intellectual ponderings then you’ll likely find yourself gravitating more towards Klosterman than Sedaris, as the former writes about music more than the latter. And of another difference between the two authors, Danny said: “I think he (Klosterman) is deeper too. In Black Hat he uses Dylan lyrics to deconstruct Hitler.” Also if you’re not familiar, the featured image is a Rene Magritte painting entitled “The Son of Man.” End note.]