Chuck Klosterman Offers No Sympathy for the Devil

Lee Polevoi

 

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)

Chuck Klosterman

Scribner

214 pages

 

A book about villainy by the pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman would seem (on paper, as it were) like a terrific idea. Klosterman is a smart, funny writer who has expanded his beat beyond sports and popular culture to serving as The Ethicist for The New York Times Magazine. The resulting effort, however, is a strangely abstracted work that isn’t so much about evil as about our popular conception of evil—not necessarily the same thing.

 

I Wear the Black Hat collects a series of essays loosely based on an interesting premise: “The villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.” Under this conceptual umbrella, Klosterman examines perceptions and realities among the widest, most disparate array of individuals imaginable. From O.J. Simpson to Perez Hilton, Batman to Machiavelli, Jerry Sandusky to Adolf Hitler, he offers analyses that mingle cultural references with sordid historical events, all in a tone that might be considered profound or flippant, depending on the coordinates of your own moral compass.

 

In the course of his meandering thought-journeys, Klosterman happens upon observations worth contemplating further (for example, what we condemn as horrible in real life is acceptable in a novel “because fiction is often the only way we can comfortably examine the morally obscene”). But for much of the time, Klosterman combines and contrasts unlikely scapegoats—O.J. Simpson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Howard Cosell and Aleister Crowley—in an effort to draw connections as wispy as the threads of a cobweb hanging in an attic window.

 

He also constantly interrupts himself with (parenthetical) and even [bracketed] asides that, while accurately tracking the workings of his discursive mind, tend to undercut whatever point he’s striving to make. Speaking of the occult writer Crowley, he says:

 

 

“But I do know this: It still means something to care about Aleister Crowley. It’s a code. It’s like carrying a gun into a maternity ward; it means your superficial sympathies fall with the opposite of whatever you were taught to believe. One Christmas, a caustic friend gave me an audio collection of Crowley’s ‘music,’ which includes recorded chanting from Mr. Crowley himself. It doesn’t sound like anything remotely good (every single track is super boring, and I can’t make out a word of whatever he’s saying). But I have other (generally nonreligious) friends who refuse to let me play this CD in their presence, even for scholastic purposes. They do not want to hear it. Do they honestly fear something evil will happen? No. That’s not part of their belief system. But it doesn’t seem worth the gamble, and it never will. I mean, why risk it? Who knows with this guy, really? I see all of Crowley’s worst qualities in myself. But none of the good ones. [Actually, that’s not true at all.]”

 

I Wear the Black Hat relies to a large extent upon cultural references either woefully outdated or simply beyond the ken of readers of a younger demographic. Andrew Dice Clay, Monica Lewinsky, Fred Durst, Chevy Chase, Sharon Stone (in “Basic Instinct”), Ted Bundy, D.B. Cooper—the time spent explaining who these celebrity-figures are (or were) and why they’re being discussed in the first place slows the pace of the narrative and results in lackluster prose with only occasional glimmers of passion.

 

Chuck Klosterman has shown he can be fearless in exposing his prejudices and misconceptions (and, in so doing, uncover much of our own similarly misguided notions). This admirable trait will serve him well in future literary efforts.

 

Lee Polevoi is the author of The Moon in Deep Winter, a novel.

 

Photo: Mirka23 (Flickr).

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