Friday, August 2, 2013

I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman - Book Review

Chuck Klosterman has been a name sorts just off the edge of my radar. I recognized the name, but I wasn't exactly sure why. Now I know! Chuck Klosterman's collection of essays on the nature of villainy, I Wear the Black Hat:Grappling withVillains (Real and Imagined) (Scribner, 2013, 224 pages, $25.00) examines with clarity and insight the nature of villainy, why we come to admire some villains while others remain despised, and the cultural forces that go to reinforce our perceptions. In a series of essays that range over the popular culture areas of music, sports, film, and politics, Klosterman looks at the range from Machievelli to Snidely Whiplash, Mohammed Ali to O.J. Simpson, and The Eagles to N.W.A, examining their postures toward the world and seeking out why they are either admired or despised. His major thesis is that the villain is “the one who knows the most and cares the least.” In looking at the sad end to the great Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, Klosterman remarks “People are remembered for the sum of their accomplishments, but defined by their singular failure.” The section on Paterno's fall from grace boils the story down to its essentials and alone is worth the price of the book.

In one section he looks at all the bands he hated during various parts of his life, only to conclude that he can no longer remember why he hated them or summon up the ire to do so. He notes that each of the groups he hated produced at least a few songs he's come to love, for one reason or another. Klosterman says that everybody hates the Eagles, except the public. He says, “Within any group conflict, my loyalties rest with whichever person is the most obviously wrong.” Taylor Swift, he notes writes good songs that can't be THAT good, so pop culture demeans her and her very real ability, at a quite young age, to write and deliver good songs. “Once you realize you can't control how you feel, it's impossible to believe any of your own opinions.” By making such seemingly contradictory, not to say outrageous statements, Klosterman urges a reader to stop, think, examine, and, often, nod one's head in assent. Klosterman's analysis manages to conflate Machiavelli, George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Paterno, and many more figures from historical and contemporary culture into a coherent argument about how we understand ourselves, and the world as a whole.

Klosterman analyzes Mohamed Ali's use of blatantly racist language to destroy Joe Frazier before their storied “Thrilla in Manila” third fight, Yet Ali has grown in popularity and become a potent cultural symbol and beloved ex-champ, while Frazier never recovered from the assaults. “Over time,” he says, “the winners are always the progressives. Conservatism can only win in the short term, because society cannot stop evolving.” The person who knows the most and cares the least can combine this quality with confidence to yield a positive public image, despite obvious evil doings or intent. D.B Cooper and Mohamed Ali are popular heroes while Mohamed Atta (one of the 9/11 culprits) and O.J. Simpson are not. He engages in a lengthy thought experiment in which he supposes that Batman was real and that all we know about him is what we read in the paper and not any of his back story. Would we still root for him. He asks, “Is it acceptable to act like a criminal to stop crime?” He explores the nature of vigilantism by exploring Benard Goetz, who shot four black men in a subway in New York during the 1980's, the Charles Bronson character in the Death Wish, and, if the book hadn't already been at the presses, would have included George Zimmerman. “Vigilantism's profound contradiction is that every socially aware person agrees that it cannot exist, even though huge swaths of society would improve if it sometimes did.” The desirable vigilante can only exist in fiction, but a real vigilante, like Goetz or Zimmerman, can't be a hero, because he doesn't care.

At about the mid-point of I Wear the Black Hat, Klosterman pauses to ask the reader to examine whether he, Klosterman, is writing about villains in order to show he is seeking to be one himself, thus presenting a self-referential argument. He then concludes, for himself, that the opposite is true. A nice piece of irony, a stylistic device that dominates the entire book. Klosterman's argument is always presented in a logical, even gentle, manner that never rises to the level of heated rhetoric, making even the unpleasant characters who show up at least reasonable to hear about. Thus, I learned some about hip-hop and rap music, an area of culture in which I've been mostly uninterested, and thought some about the importance of N.W.A., the evil design of the Oakland Raiders as a reflection of owner Al Davis, and the humor of Andrew Dice Clay, one of whose videos I managed to sit through 4:39 before turning the nasty rant off. I felt bad that I had actually smiled at a couple of his punch-lines.

This book pre-figures the current world in weird and wonderful ways. Here we read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, only to have that weirdest of present day villains, Anthony Weiner, appear in our imaginations. And who appears now to be becoming the villainess but his wife, the innocent Hillary Clinton advisor Huma Abedin, a woman whose sole flaw appears to be trying to protect her child through supporting her silly and desperate husband. People in love, says Klosterman, make poor decisions. People in lust make no decisions at all. And on the story goes, with more startling connections and insights.

Chuck Klosterman

There's a start of recognition, a jolt of energy, when one is first introduced to a new mind. Such is the effect engendered on first meeting and then getting to know the work of Chuck Klosterman. His world view is so encompassing and seductive one reads in awe the remarkable connections between seemingly irreconcilable differences as he rambles, almost seamlessly, between mental islands. Klosterman writes of a a world, part of which I consciously missed, and makes me wish I'd paid more attention to it, because what he writes about the parts I'm familiar with is so good – witty, insightful, filled with surprising connections, and pointed to a non-ironic world view that makes sense. There are many other examples which I want to write about, but I'll leave it to readers to discover the richness of this book. Chuck Klosterman is a New York Times bestselling author and a featured columnist for Esquire, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and has also written for Spin, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Believer, and ESPN. I received Klosterman's I Wear the Black Hat:Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) (Scribner, 2013, 224 pages, $25.00) from the publisher through Edelweiss: Above the treeline. I read it on my Kindle.

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