Pop-culture critic and noted Olive Garden aficionado Chuck Klosterman is not unlike a wordy Vegas magician, or at least the best BS-er at the end of the bar.
In such bestsellers as Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live, the North Dakota hipster-populist offered astounding (and potentially tedious) theses, then set about arguing them with likable, relatable gusto. For instance, he posited how the Celtics and Lakers symbolize all of life's greatest rivalries, especially Republicans (the trad-minded Bostonians) vs. Democrats (the flash of Showtime). Nutty? Sure. But, abracadabra, it made awesome sense.
His unhinged but vastly entertaining brain is again a cornucopia of contrarian derring-do in the new I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined), an examination of modern bad guys — inspired by the conceit that he himself may be a mustache-twirler.
"In any situation," he writes, "the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least." See: Joe Paterno, Newt Gingrich, Darth Vader, Walter White, Bill Clinton and, because Klosterman likes putting his life on the line, Taylor Swift and Don Henley. He figures the most pure villain ever is 'toon ne'er-do-well Snidely Whiplash, a smart fella who lived solely to tie damsels to train tracks.
He also wonders why our attitudes about villains change. Why do we love fake drug dealers (Breaking Bad, Weeds) but dislike real ones? Why do we adore Batman, a vigilante, but question Bernhard Goetz, a vigilante? Why did we hate O.J. Simpson even more when he didn't flee the country?
If the Juice had just disappeared or shut his mouth, Klosterman reasons, maybe we could enjoy Naked Gun movies or old Buffalo Bills footage again. But he didn't care what we thought: "Is he aware how much people hated his unwillingness to behave like someone he wasn't?"
Per usual, Klosterman is all over the place, a pick-and-choose buffet that's not for everyone. The smartypants, who also does the Ethicist column in the New York Times, uses sleight of hand and writerly acrobatics to get from A to B, sometimes spiralling into a head-scratching rabbit hole. Whether he proves his point is not the point — it's in the getting there, critical thinking that's all parts Roland Barthes and a Jerry Seinfeld routine.
In short: I'm not sure what I learned in I Wear the Black Hat. But I do know I liked learning it.
Now let's get back to Henley.
• • •
I've been a Klosterman fan since his debut, 2001's prodigious Fargo Rock City, a resolute defense of heavy-metal music. I adored it, not just because it legitimized my own headbanging leanings, but because it analyzed something people see as silly with keen critical thinking.
In Black Hat, he again appeals to my base, irrational impulses. In 1996 or 1997, perhaps on a Friday night, I realized I never had to hear the Eagles again. I figured it was just because I was raised on the stuff; I'd taken it to the limit. But Klosterman posits that Henley's Hotel California troupe has become a hated band (see The Big Lebowski in particular) because they were revealed to be "counterculture figures who were against the counterculture" and "effortlessly represented what people do not like about Malibu. They were the antithesis of The Rockford Files." In other words, they were fooling us, and they didn't care.
Taylor Swift is also getting negative press, becoming someone to boo-hiss for the same reason — her initial innocence was seen as charming but now it's calculated: "All the qualities her previous audience had once used to justify her success as a pop star felt annoying to those who cared about her for the first time."
The truth, though, is that the Eagles and Swift were always commercially driven. They didn't change; our perceptions did. It's an illuminating point, but Klosterman, as Klosterman is wont to do, then spirals off into wild terrain: "The Eagles are real, but they don't exist; they only exist as a way to think about 'the Eagles.' "
I'm not smart/stoned enough to understand that or, frankly, to care. But Klosterman isn't just clever; he's a clever entertainer as well. And if he loses you, he'll seduce you back soon enough. Not long after that Eagles mumbo-jumbo, he has this sublime aside on Prince's movie Purple Rain, which was "unforgettable for many reasons: the live performance of Darling Nikki, its underrated examination of what constitutes art, the unexpected cameo from Apollonia's breasts, and the discomfiting nostalgia it evokes for that bygone era when Prince seemed way weirder than Michael Jackson." Wow, that's good stuff.
If there's an ultimate summation, it's that we all have tolerance for villainy. He slyly tells a story about an unnamed airline hijacker, perhaps the most reviled category of criminal in post-9/11 America. This particular hijacker does things for selfish reasons, puts people's lives in peril. Not until the end of his story, however, does he reveal this person to be D.B. Cooper, a celebrated folk hero, a rogue with panache and charm to spare.
"Now I'm not trying to argue that Cooper and Mohamed Atta [who crashed the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center] are ultimately the same," he writes. "They are fundamentally different. But that shouldn't make them opposites, because they do share a massive similarity. They're both defined by the decision to hijack an airplane, so they should both exist on similar tiers of distaste: Atta should obviously be hated more, but Cooper should be hated some."
But Cooper is not hated at all; there are festivals celebrating this guy's con-artistry. So what gives? "Avoiding villainy is not that different from avoiding loneliness: First, you must love yourself. And if you do that convincingly enough, others will love you too much."
That's a dangerous magic trick right there, incendiary analysis coming from the end of the bar. But bravado and chutzpah, along with a simple love of language, are Klosterman's pure gifts as well. He doesn't think or reason like the rest of us, but, hey, why would you want him to?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.