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I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) Hardcover – July 9, 2013
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Guest Review of I Wear the Black Hat
By Rob Sheffield
Nobody investigates American culture with the ferocity of Chuck Klosterman. It’s impossible to imagine any writer who even could have invented Klosterman as a fictional character, because no other writer can come close to matching his ear for the way Americans love to argue. I Wear the Black Hat is his study of villains, ripping into moral questions with the same fervor he brings to any other topic. Who else loves an argument this passionately? And what could be more American than loving an argument? Reading I Wear The Black Hat is like wandering into a saloon, taking the barstool next to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and getting sucked into a marathon philosophical debate over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s cameo in Airplane!
Black Hat is his most wide-ranging, provocative, unhinged and hilariously contentious book yet. In “The Ethicist,” the column he writes for the New York Times, Klosterman addresses his readers’ everyday moral dilemmas, but here he branches into broader questions of good and evil. What is a villain? What makes a villain different from a bad guy, a crook, an antihero? Why does the Dude hate the Eagles? Why do kids relate to Luke Skywalker while their parents prefer Darth Vader?
It’s a rogue’s gallery of villains, ingeniously paced to keep you guessing who’s coming up next. Some of these villains are historical figures, like Machiavelli or Stalin. Others are modern legends, like the 1970s skyjacker D.B. Cooper. Some are totally fictional, like the mustache-twirling cartoon Snidely Whiplash. And one is Hitler, just because people kept disagreeing about whether he should include a Hitler chapter. He digs into the tangled ethical legacies of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Jimmy Page and Aleister Crowley, Batman and Bernhard Goetz, N.W.A. and the Oakland Raiders. He also notes how President Obama has called Omar his favorite character on The Wire, “thus making Obama the first sitting president to express admiration for a fictional homosexual who killed dozens of people with a shotgun.”
As always, Klosterman mixes cerebral quibbles with his own crackpot junk-culture erudition, like some kind of demon spawn sired by Schopenhauer and C. C. DeVille. He always finds a way to cast some new light on artifacts that are hidden in plain sight. For instance, most people have heard of The Starr Report, and have a vague sense of its historical impact. But who has actually read it lately? Who remembers details like the way Monica Lewinsky gave Bill Clinton a souvenir mug from Santa Monica? Or O.J. Simpson’s 2007 book If I Did It, his hypothetical memoir of how he would have murdered his victims? “The existence of this book is deeply, vastly, hysterically underrated,” Klosterman notes. “I want to write something along the lines of ‘If I Did It is as bizarre as ---,’ but no cultural minutia fits in that space. Roman Polanski would have to make a biopic about Charles Manson’s music career.”
All over Black Hat, Klosterman brings a little sympathy for the devil, which is essential for a book this ambitious. And he holds it all together with his voracious intellectual curiosity, the emotional intensity of his prose, the compassion of his bad Catholic conscience. As he ruefully admits, in his discussion of Chevy Chase, “I see all of Chevy’s worst qualities in myself. But none of his good ones.”
If he ever came off as moralistic, or a talk-radio blowhard, it would sink the whole project. Yet Klosterman always seems to approach these questions out of genuine curiosity--the man would rather start an argument than settle one, much less win one. He savors the debate for its own sake. That’s what makes his voice so humane, so unmistakable. It’s also what ultimately makes Black Hat his most compelling work. Reading any random page of Black Hat--as with anything Klosterman writes, except more so--you want to argue back at every line, right down to the commas.
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Top Customer Reviews
As a new Klosterman reader perhaps I came to the book expecting the wrong thing. I expected a cogent thoughtful treatise on what causes us to identify some people or characters as villanous while giving others the pass. And while Klosterman starts off his first chapter in this direction with a discussion of why Machiavelli is widely reviled, he quickly dissembles into some serious navel gazing.
Klosterman opens his second chapter with an extended discussion of bands he has disliked. I'll admit that I didn't care much about Klosterman's taste in music, however the discussion might have been justified had it fed some larger reasoned conclusion. However, even after re-reading his discussion twice I could not make out exactly what his larger point was. While he wrote in exacting detail about his personal taste he definitely phoned it in when it came to drawing conclusions.
From there Klosterman launched into a discussion of why some mysoginist music from decades passed has come to be thought of as mostly harmless while a similarly sexist comedian is still reviled. Again Klosterman doesn't draw any strongly reasoned conclusions, and it's even the conclusions that he does draw seem suspect given that he offers up no support other than his own opinions and no additional examples beyond the two he has discussed.
And to be honest even though Klosterman was clearly working to paint his sexist comedian as a sympatheitc victim of political correctness, it was difficult to find much to sympathize about a man who made millions calling women dirty names on stage.Read more ›
I find that the reviews that criticize Klosterman's ideas or express disagreement with his conclusions are probably missing the point - the questions he raises are just as important as his assertions. You don't have to agree. The Amazon summary is exactly correct: "Klosterman continues to be the only writer doing whatever it is he's doing." Fans of his other books will enjoy this.
Instead of the normal Everyman DFW, I feel we get Malcolm Galdwell in a band t-shirt. Klosterman is just not maintaining the task set itself and his normally helpful penchant for pop culture examples just don't do the lifting they normally do. Klosterman problem is that his thesis seems to be pop psychology and his defense of it is largely built around sports. There are still individual lines that are hilariously funny, and Klosterman has not lost his ability to write crystal clear ironic prose, but the center cannot hold here because the approach and the subject matter just don't seem to mess. I would give suggest reading it as a collection of essays and enjoying the line by line, but if one holds it to its own ambition, most of Klosterman's earlier books of essays are much more successful on their own terms.
So--what is this book? It's a series of chapters about various villains ranging from The Eagles to O.J. Simpson to Hitler. Each mini expose is wrapped in a small shroud of pop culture, putting the villain into context for us--or not.
I'm not sure why I liked it so much, think it was partly that the book is smart, partly that it is irreverent, maybe because there are some good musical references, and heck, it is probably talking down to me but I don't know. Whatever it is, the book was an enjoyable few hours during which my cold symptoms ceased to annoy me.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Not Klosterman's strongest collection as a whole, likely due to being written around a singular theme. A few essays are stellar. Many are just okay. Read morePublished 16 days ago by Kim Meyer
More introspective than most Klosterman works, this collection of essays is tied together by the author's fixation on a the answer to the question manifested in the title. Read morePublished 1 month ago by paul
Really interesting book, from an author I already like quite a bit.Published 2 months ago by Peter Conte
You either like CK or you dont. This book got to be a little dragged out. You can only describe a villain so many ways before it get old and repetitive.Published 3 months ago by Rick
Buy this book. It is certainly the most memorable book that I have read this year.
Klosterman is hysterically funny. Read more
If you're a fan of his nonfiction, then you will like it. Lots of trivial, slackeresque pondering. He's a real American treasure.Published 4 months ago by rol1134
completely enjoyable. nice to focus on the bad guys for a change.Published 6 months ago by Stoner/Doom