By Heather Havrilesky
9:00 AM EDT, July 5, 2013
Most cultural critics have a natural appetite for controversy. But some subjects are so contentious that they strike fear in the most courageous writers. The nightmare scenario: Your editor calls you and says, "Kanye has a new song called 'Hitler's Shorty Wants a Corn Dog.' Can you analyze the intersection of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and phallic meats-on-sticks? We need 800 words in 2 hours."
To pop cultural critic Chuck Klosterman, this nightmare is more like a daydream. In his new book, "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)," he seeks out polarizing public figures including Joe Paterno, rap group N.W.A, Bill Clinton and Andrew Dice Clay, and examines whether the antipathy (or admiration) for them is justified.
Usually, he does this by posing rhetorical questions: If Batman were real, and you knew that a vigilante was killing criminals without due process, would you root for him or want him arrested? What about Bernard Goetz, who became a hero to many New Yorkers in 1985 for stopping four black teenagers from mugging him on the subway (by, uh, shooting them) but who fell out of favor as soon as people figured out he was "weird," as Klosterman puts it?
Why is Batman seen as a hero, when Goetz is seen a villain? Could it all boil down to a strong jaw, black tights and an excellent sports car?
Obviously, it's more complicated than that. But one thing you can say about Klosterman is that he's unafraid of complications. In exploring why "the qualities that we value in the unreal (Batman) are somehow verboten in reality (Goetz)," Klosterman analyzes 1) the state of crime in New York City in 1985; 2) the pressures on Goetz after becoming an "overnight" celebrity; 3) the plot of "Death Wish"; 4) that Goetz said, after the shooting, "I wanted to kill those guys"; 5) the subsequent crimes committed by the teenagers in question; 6) Goetz's alleged history of racist statements; 7) the ways public perceptions of Goetz split down bipartisan lines, 8) Goetz's habit of sharing his New York City apartment with squirrels; 9) that Batman is cool and can't be interrogated by reporters.
Once Klosterman has sifted through all these factors and also considered Ted Bundy, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, sci-fi novelist Norman Spinrad and Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho," he finally concludes that, "[t]he reason things unacceptable in life are acceptable in fiction is because fiction is the only way we can comfortably examine the morally obscene."
Such elaborate rhetorical exercises will either strike readers as fascinating or exhausting, depending on just how anxious they are to evaluate 30-year-old pop-cultural trivia to draw sweeping conclusions about humanity at large. With his 2002 bestselling essay collection "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs," Klosterman certainly proved that there's a giant readership out there for digressive explorations of so-called low culture, ranging from the perils of playing "The Sims" to the shame incurred by an attraction to Pamela Sue Anderson.
With "I Wear the Black Hat," though, Klosterman replaces the funny personal digressions of his earlier collection with extended pedantic inquiries that can feel like scraps from the Ethicist's cutting-room floor (Klosterman began writing the New York Times Magazine's weekly column last year). Will Klosterman's wider readership find "I Wear the Black Hat" engrossing? Or will they find themselves longing for the good old days, when Klosterman favored detailed analyses of "The Real World" over weighty rhetorical exercises?
Either way, it's hard to deny the courage of taking on O.J. Simpson ("he makes it seem like the worst part of Brown and Goldman's murder was what happened to him"), Chevy Chase ("the only person smart enough not to care about anything") and Hitler ("his success was mostly a product of his prowess as a public speaker") in a single tome.
In fact, Satan himself may be the least controversial figure in Klosterman's book. "In the pop world, the devil is mostly depicted as a fair-minded gambler," Klosterman explains. "[I]f you're a good enough musician, the devil will give you a golden fiddle and concede his defeat, allowing you to peacefully live the rest of your days in rural Georgia."
Although he tends to progress from complex analyses to oversimplified conclusions, Klosterman has a knack for holding up a magical high-def mirror to American pop culture that makes all of our vanities and delusions look painfully obvious. Spend enough time reading "I Wear the Black Hat," and you might even start to recognize, in its pages, your own silly assumptions, your snap judgments, your stubborn loyalties and your badly rationalized prejudices.
By underscoring the contradictory, often knee-jerk ways we encounter the heroes and villains of our culture, Klosterman illustrates the passionate but incomplete computations that have come to define American culture — and maybe even American morality.
Havrilesky is author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness."
I Wear the Black Hat
Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)
Scribner: 224 pp., $25
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