Let’s Talk about Bad Guys: Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat

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i wear the black hat klosterman

Chuck Klosterman’s new book, I Wear the Black Hat, comes out today, and it’s a study in what it takes to be a villain. In the first chapter, Klosterman (I’m tempted to call him Chuck because he feels like a friend — a smart and funny friend who makes me feel smarter and funnier just for being around him — but I’ll that’s creepy so I won’t) defines the villain as the person who knows the most but cares the least.

Shorthand: George W. Bush could never be the villain, because he neither knew the most nor cared the least … but Dick Cheney is certainly in the running. Klosterman explores these and other villainous characters, drawn from everywhere — music, fiction, history (both ancient and recent), and even from his own summer camp. Darth Vader’s here, but so is Machiavelli. Batman shares a chapter with Dirty Harry (and with some real-life vigilante who I don’t remember because he was famous when I was five). There’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Andrew Dice Clay, Fidel Castro, Taylor Swift, Chairman Mao, O.J. Simpson, and, yeah, even Hitler.

As always, Chuck (okay, I can’t resist) is smart and funny, and I found myself wanting to read sections out loud to random people who had the misfortune of standing near me (I’ve been known to do this for real in my bookshop — for proof, search #instareadings on Instagram). But you can also see from this book that Chuck’s pop culture critic hat is starting to make him feel, well, sort of ridiculous.

He writes: “As much as we like to pretend that narcissism is gross, it doesn’t function that way in society (particularly if the person projecting that narcissism has a sense of humor.)” This chapter is mostly talking about Prince’s movie Purple Rain, but I think Chuck’s also talking about himself. Constantly writing about your own experience with pop culture is, by definition, somewhat narcissistic. And, even if people like me love him for that, Chuck himself (or, at least, Chuck as a narrator) seems a little sick of it.

Take the chapter titled, “Another Thing that Interests Me about The Eagles Is that I [Am Contractually Obligated to] Hate Them.” He doesn’t actually hate The Eagles — not because he likes them, but because he doesn’t care that much. Having a more balanced and less snarky view of life might make you a better person, but it makes your job harder if you’re a critic:

“Being emotionally fragile is an important part of being a successful critic; it’s an integral element to being engaged with mainstream art … if you don’t hate anything, you’re boring. You’re useless. And you end up writing about why you can no longer generate fake feelings that other people digest as real.”

Chuck’s self-reflection comes across as self-doubt and, frankly, that’s not a lot of fun to read. But his crisis is itself a pretty brilliant critique of the current state of criticism, especially of critics who write about pop culture (and, with the state of news in this country, even subjects that shouldn’t be pop culture are turned into it in order to keep profitable news cycles alive). Lots of writers are still expressing those fake feelings as if they’re genuine, and that erodes trust between the writer and the reader. I give Chuck a lot of credit for choosing not to break that trust. He’s telling us the truth instead of lying to us, even though the lies might make us smile. It’s a choice that makes the book less quippy and, frankly, a little less fun than his other work. But it’s a brave choice.

Throughout the book, Chuck wonders if he’s obsessed with villainy because he himself is a villain, but I think it’s obvious that he’s not. By his own definition, he can’t be — he may know the most, but he certainly doesn’t care the least. If he did, he wouldn’t mind lying to us.

Carrie Rollwagen is book buyer and co-owner of Church Street Coffee & Books. She got this book as a free review copy from Book Expo America.

 

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