I Wear the Black Hat

by Chuck Klosterman (Scribner)

It’s been like a year now but I still can’t believe it: Chuck Klosterman writes the Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine. Reflecting on this I am unable to decide which irritates me more: The fact that the NYT Magazine feels it is upon them to have an “ethicist,” or the fact that Chuck Klosterman is now he.

Chuck Klosterman? The guy who wrote practically a whole book about his relationship with the music of Motley Crüe? The man who, in the guise (or service) of writing about goth kids or Morrissey’s Mexican fan base has also written movingly, revealingly, even embarrassingly about his adolescence on a North Dakota farm, and the women he likes who don’t like him back? For years now the cultural critic has functioned as a confessional writer (though he never gets called this because he’s a man), and aging indie kids have loved him all this time, mainly because he’s smart and has great taste in music but because he also knows that unimportant junk like TV commercials and Facebook is worth talking about too, because those are the things that fill our days. And he’s funny.

But now, with the column and his new book, he has taken a different, ostensibly much more serious approach: He’s writing about the nature of evil. Yeah. As the waggish title of a book by previous Ethicist, Randy Cohen, would have it, he’s interested in sorting out the good, the bad, and the difference.

Since this seemed awfully ambitious, I found myself beginning I Wear the Black Hat by flipping around, looking for essays about music. This has always been Klosterman’s stock-in-trade, and he has usually done it very well. He looks at performers like Fred Durst and Radiohead and shows us what our consumption of their work tells us about ourselves. Like some of Jonathan Franzen’s fine personal essays, they are about himself as much as they are about their purported subject, and somehow also about everything.

To my satisfaction I did find stupid Fred Durst, backwards baseball cap and all, and also the Eagles (the band), in what was far and away the funniest essay in the book: “The Other Thing About the Eagles is That I (Am Contractually Obligated To) Hate Them.” Funny but interesting too, because after listing the music he has passionately hated in earlier periods of his life he writes that he is no longer able to feel contempt for the idea of a band or a musician, and he tries to sort out why this might be. (Maybe he just grew up? If that’s all it is he’s much more mature than I am.)

But there are some disappointments here. The first is that most of this book is not really about music or pop culture, even when it is—that Klosterman keeps trying to take on bigger questions. Instead of looking at mostly unimportant but contentious public figures, he’s talking about “villains,” real and perceived. The other is that these arguments, about technocrats and sociopaths and politicians, are insightful and attractive-sounding —he really does have a way with words—but are often specious, with too much hinging on one weak premise. At their best these essays make a few real insights and/or make you laugh, but at their worst they’re simply uninteresting, a bit of mental exercise that is ultimately mostly disappointing, like chewing for a million hours on some over-sticky taffy that doesn’t even taste that good.

When it comes to pop culture writing, though, Klosterman is still a master of observation. (“It does not seem like photographs of Aleister Crowley should exist. … He seems like a creature who should have lived long ago, before cameras…” It’s so true!) He is also still very funny. More on Crowley: “Two of his central creeds were a) never make claims that cannot be proven and b) never pretend to be something you are not. This is actually excellent advice, although horribly impractical for a pansexual magick user who once tried to kill a personal rival with mind bullets.” And when he’s right, he’s right. On Crowley again: “It still means something to care about Aleister Crowley. It’s code. … it means your superficial sympathies fall with the opposite of whatever you were taught to believe.”

More important, maybe, is that he is not afraid to take his writing to a difficult place—which in this book is often a dirty, self-doubting place—and he does so with the intention to understand something rather than to manipulate or shock. He gets real. When he shows us his heart of darkness, as he does in the essay about what makes entertainers hateful to us (Don Henley, Chevy Chase, Howard Cosell, himself), it is as affecting and effective as his writing has ever been. In the same way that the chapter about drinking in Fargo Rock City revealed something fragile and frightened about the man, these parts of the book feel like, if not a cry for help, at least a cri de coeur. Klosterman is trying to work out something about himself here, and rather than giving us pompous lectures on ethics he seems genuinely concerned that he is amoral, or imperfect to some terrible degree. He never did try to stand in isolated judgment of the musicians he loved and loathed, which is part of what makes him good at what he does, and likable too. But too often in these essays it seems he hasn’t made his mind up yet, that he let Black Hat go to print before he figured out why he set about writing it in the first place.

As he does throughout the book, he brings the conversation back to himself in the piece “What You Say About His Company is What You Say About Society” (which is the Machiavelli one, actually, and ends up also being about George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich). “[Newt] would tie a woman to the railroad tracks just to prove he knew what time the train left the station. This is why I always find myself rooting for him, even when I’m against what he pretends to desire. I know exactly what he’s doing. It’s like looking into a mirror I do not possess the capacity to smash.”

Okay. That’s heavy. I’m not entirely sure what it means, but I appreciate the way these essays are always circling memoir like buzzards. It seems decent of Klosterman to let us get to know him; it makes his criticism stronger, more human, justifiable and yet much more brutal, when the subject calls for it. Still, I find myself wishing he would stick to doing his entertaining criticism of the kinds of things that maybe don’t deserve it, and leave the bigger issues to someone else.