I Wear the Black Hat

By Chuck Klosterman

Are villains people we hate, or love (to hate)? Either way, our response is irrational. I hate Tom Hanks, even though (or perhaps because) he’s played the hero in every movie I’ve seen him in. I also hate Tom Brady, though I’ll admit he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks who’s ever played in the NFL. It’s just that I’m a Bills fan.

Of course the way we speak of “hating” celebrities we’ve never met and don’t know the first thing about, and whom we’ll likely never meet or ever know the first thing about, is a colloquial idiocy. But according to the prolific music-sports-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman, who wrote a 2004 column for Esquire headlined “The Importance of Being Hated” about his own hatred of a major league baseball pitcher, these pop hates tell us not only a lot about ourselves but something about villainy (real and imagined) in our time.

As things turn out, it’s all about us.

Hating public figures is a subject that Klosterman is well positioned to speak on, since a lot of people hate Chuck Klosterman. Some years ago I wrote a review of his rock-n-roll pseudo-memoir Killing Yourself to Live that began by saying how “it would be hard to imagine a worse book.” In the next two sentences I went on to call it “deplorable,” a “disaster,” and “very, very bad.”

I later found out that this was one of the nicer reviews it received.

So yes, Klosterman is one of those pop-culture journalists who can really get under your skin. He’s a self-deprecating narcissist, and a glib but inarticulate journalist. It’s as though a lifetime of mass-media consumption has (to borrow a phrase from Apocalypse Now) really put the zap on his head.

A singer he is, whose only song is of himself. On this point he is forthright and unashamed (if a little depressed and befuddled at his lonely consciousness). “Writing about other people is a form of writing about oneself,” he warns us. “This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for me. Why pretend?” What if, he goes on to wonder, this whole book is “just an uninteresting person, thinking about himself because there’s nothing else to think about?” Now that’s staring into the abyss! Alas, “there is no way around myself unless I become somebody else.”

You see what I mean.

That said, I Wear the Black Hat shows signs that Klosterman is on the road to recovery. Not, however, because his thesis — that villainy is subjective and situational — is very profound or original. After all, as he admits, “I’ve never had an idea that a hundred other people didn’t have before me.” And not because his koan-like definition of a villain — “the person who knows the most but cares the least” — is all that clear or meaningful.

No, if you’re looking for big ideas this isn’t the place. But Klosterman does have some interesting things to say, and while he’s still grating, he can also occasionally entertain and inform.

He is best in the sections that highlight the way villains are made not born, and un-made as well. Not only is villainy a matter of personal taste, it is fleeting as fame. A chapter on vigilantes real and imagined (Bernard Goetz, Charles Bronson, and Batman) is good on the construction of villainy in the media, and the value shift that takes place when moving from reality to fiction (a hero in one can be a villain in the other). And the chapter on different species of digital villains (Perez Hilton, Kim Dotcom, Julian Assange) is also excellent. Internet villains get under our skin, in part, because we are their enablers. We scare ourselves when we go online.

This being Klosterman, there’s a lot of disjointed and downright confusing blab as well. How someone who seems to know nothing about music or sports has built a career out of writing fans’s notes on music and sports is hard to figure out.

But if Klosterman was a publishing villain in the past, at least he’s not as big a one now. He’s traded in his black hat this time for one that’s plaid.

I’m just worried that since I don’t hate him any more, I’ll stop loving him as well. Maybe he was better at just being bad.

Review first published in the Toronto Star July 12, 2013.

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