Snidely Whiplash Lives!
Author: Chuck Klosterman
I’m confident that at least a few people really hate Chuck Klosterman. Maybe many. He’s inordinately brainy and sarcastic, rather funny looking and is the kind of guy who likes to poke and prod any sacred cows he can find. Moreover, as far as I can tell he knows more about popular culture – sports, TV, blogs, politics, movies – than anyone on the planet. Lastly, he takes great joy in showing off the vast expanse of his knowledge, to an annoying extent at times. Over the past couple decades the man has achieved minor celebrity status with some bestsellers and some high profile writing gigs, so I’m sure he’s accustomed to his share of hate mail. Intrigued by the way that hatred comes so easily – particularly with today’s non-stop media saturation – Klosterman decided to explore modern history’s most infamous villains and why we hate the people we do, from Bono to Howard Cosell to Stalin. The result is I Wear the Black Hat, a wide ranging and humorous look at all sorts of bad guys (and a few gals).
The author appropriately starts out by defining exactly who qualifies as a villain, which is not as easy as you might think. He then segues into an unfortunate chapter that reviews every rock band or musician he’s hated since the age of ten and the details behind these often irrational obsessions. If I hadn’t read his work before – and had some confidence that he could recover from this – I might have bailed right here, but I persevered through ten pages of self-indulgent tedium and survived unscathed.
Fortunately, the book subsequently gets much better with ten loosely organized chapters on various versions of villainy, revealing Klosterman’s unique take on major events like the OJ trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as well as famous – or formerly famous – personalities like Muhammad Ali, Chevy Chase, Andrew Dice Clay, Ice Cube and Bernie Goetz. With some reluctance, he even attempts the impossible by concluding with an insightful chapter about Adolph Hitler, possibly without offending anyone. No easy feat for a humor writer.
From Swedish super group ABBA to Milwaukee native and film director David Zucker, the author covers an incredible spread of cultural acreage. Given that the book weighs in at a slim 200 pages, it’s rather astonishing that the index is a full twelve pages long.
I’ve enjoyed Klosterman’s work in the past, like Eating the Dinosaur, and except for the stumble at the start this book is of a similar quality. What I like about his writing is his tenacious approach to an idea. For example, in one chapter he asks what it might be like if a modern day Batman appeared – would he be a hero or a villain? – and scrutinizes the topic with remarkable persistence, exploring it from numerous unusual angles. In each chapter, he consistently finds new wrinkles to investigate and seems to revel in examining any previously hidden dead ends or secret passages he finds along the way. I don’t necessarily agree with every assumption he makes or each conclusion he reaches, but I find his analytic approach to a topic to be reliably thought-provoking, entertaining and frequently funny.
If you’ve ever wondered why everyone hates the IT guy or why nobody ever named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as their favorite basketball player, you can rest comfortably knowing that Chuck Klosterman has the answers. I Wear the Black Hat is recommended for fans of Klosterman’s unique and occasionally obnoxious style or for anyone interested in the complex world of heroism, villainy and the frequent overlap between the two.
— D. Driftless
Ice Cube photo by Eva Rinaldi