Chuck Klosterman is the cultural conscience of a generation that otherwise has little use for 20/20 self-critique.
In his first book, "Fargo Rock City" (2001), Klosterman looked back on his metal-crazed adolescence in Wyndmere, N.D., trying to find meaning in the experience of coming of age in the hair-farming '80s. Part rural memoir, part rock journalism, part sociological treatise, the book was an instant grabber. It was full of snarky humor -- you try writing about the Scorpions with a straight face -- but it approached its subject matter with an intimacy and an affection that put it light years ahead of the painfully ironic mea culpas usually offered up by "recovered" junk-culture addicts.
It also revealed Klosterman as a frighteningly terrific writer. His analysis of a guitar solo by fembot axe maniac Vinnie Vincent ranks right up there with H.P. Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann" as a pinpoint description of perverse virtuosity:
At the conclusion of "Animal," Vincent plays faster and harder and faster and harder and faster and stupider and he's going nowhere but he's getting there fast and now your neighbors are banging on the wall and your bookcase speakers are starting to melt and your beagle is in obvious pain and suddenly you suspect that everything in your house is going to IMPLODE.
With its conversational assuredness, "Fargo Rock City" embodied the theory espoused by Salinger (by way of Holden Caulfield, natch) that a great author comes off like a personal friend the reader can ring up whenever he or she so desires. Except that Klosterman went Salinger one better by actually printing his home phone number in his book's acknowledgements.
"I got a lot of people who would call me up because of my phone number in there," says Klosterman, now 31. "And they would `say`, 'That was exactly like my life, except I grew up in Atlanta, and I was into hardcore.'" He laughs. "I guess it wasn't so much the subject I was writing about, but the idea of being able to laugh at something that, in truth, you do and did take seriously."
Amid the deluge of calls he received was an invitation from David Byrne to take part in a reading in New York City. That reading was observed by an editor from The New York Times Magazine, and soon Klosterman was everywhere -- in The Times, on VH-1, and in the pages of Spin, where he is now a senior writer. (At the time of "Fargo Rock City's" publication, he was working as a music, film and culture critic for the Akron Beacon-Journal.)
It was both thrilling and amusing to see Klosterman embraced by the mainstream media as its youth pundit of choice, called upon time and again to explain popular iconography to a national audience that, "I Love the '80s" marathons or no, wouldn't know Vinnie Vincent from Vinnie Barbarino. He wears the mantle of the theoretical boy-king well in his second published volume, "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" (Scribner), a series of essays on so-called low culture -- some of it musical, but some not.
At first, Klosterman says, he toyed with making his all-important second book a full-length deconstruction of MTV's "The Real World program," but he eventually nixed the idea as "overkill." The concept of a tome based entirely on the Lakers/Celtics basketball rivalry was dismissed for the same reason.
"When I wrote 'Fargo Rock City,' I wrote it fast, but I had been thinking about it for 10 years, probably. "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs," I wrote in four months," he says, sounding like every major-label recording artist who's ever wrestled with the sophomore jinx. "I do think it's weird that I'm in this position now where it's kind of like, 'Write whatever you think about anything, and it'll get published.'"
"Cocoa Puffs" is far better than that ambiguous imperative would suggest. It's not the book "Fargo" was by any means -- but that only means that it's merely the second most brilliant piece of pop-cultural commentary on store shelves today. Klosterman's "Real World" fixation survives in a single-chapter essay on the series, and though he knows he's not the first writer to address the topic -- Michael Krugman and Jason Cohen did a beautiful job of it in 1994's "Generation Ecch!," which Klosterman (interestingly) claims never to have read -- his insights are fascinating in their own right. A particularly trenchant observation: He's now encountering real people who seem to have based their own personalities on the behavioral templates the show presents.
"`MTV` always look`s` for somebody to put in the house who is basically impossible to live with and really unreasonable," the flesh-and-blood Klosterman amplifies. "And because that happens every year, I think that, to a lot of people, being unreasonable is no longer unreasonable. It's like a valid way to be."
And the program is reassuring in other ways, he maintains.
"It's always kind of the same show. The people don't get any older, the situations don't really change. When you watch "The Real World" every new season, it's like you get older, but they don't." If he's aware that he's paraphrasing Dennis Quaid in "Breaking Away" -- and he probably is -- he doesn't let on.
There's also a musing on that Lakers/ Celtics dilemma, in the form of a guide to the divergent lifestyles and habits exhibited by fans of those particular teams. The chapter is funny enough to entertain those of us who grew up thinking that sports and rawk should never mix, but the real meat is in Klosterman's measured, open-minded studies of various other elements of pop-cultural detritus. He weighs the strengths and weaknesses of the "Left Behind" school of end-times fiction, and in yet another chapter delves into the peculiar metaphysics of "Saved by the Bell."
As in "Fargo Rock City," there's a bittersweet undercurrent to a lot of the material, though this time it's a more mature, worldly form of poignancy. In "Billy Sim," Klosterman experiments with the virtual-reality game The Sims, but finds that the SimChuck doppelgÅ nger he's programmed is a glum malcontent given to pronouncing that he is "not comfortable" and "not having fun."
That's some alienated stuff, but Klosterman fires his most distressing salvo in the very first essay, "This Is Emo," in which he proposes that the images of "fake love" perpetuated by the mass media have made the genuine article impossible for him and his peers to experience. Pressed to explain this uncharacteristic fatalism, he admits that he wrote the piece a week after ending a relationship -- but its point is too interesting to be explained away contextually. It puts Klosterman in the position of arguing that a component of his background is intrinsically unhealthy -- the exact opposite message of that conveyed by most of his last book.
"Now that you bring it up, that is a bit of a paradox, isn't it?" he concedes. "`But` I'm not really that concerned with being 'right' about things. I don't want to persuade people of stuff. There's a lot of critics who `think` their opinion of the Beach Boys' "Wild Honey" is no different than, like, the speed of the acceleration of gravity. I don't think like that at all. I just think that all criticism is autobiography. You learn more about the writer than you do about the subject."
That philosophy is what makes Klosterman such a compelling read -- that, and his determination to value honesty above cool.
"There's so many fuckin' people in this town" -- New York, where he now lives -- "who spend all their time trying to seem cool," he says. "They aren't even trying to be cool -- they don't even care if they're cool or not. They just want other people to perceive that they are. And I just am never cool, and I never try to be."
At least, not anymore.
"When I was in high school, I liked Poison and kind of pretended I didn't, you know?" he muses. "I would never do that now."
But is he just falling into that dreaded alternative paradigm, "so uncool he's cool"?
"That's a very interesting phenomenon, because it doesn't happen in a lot of other things. No one's such a bad driver they're a good driver. No one's so fat that they're actually a thin person."
Having his self-image together may be the final point of departure between Klosterman and one of his avowed idols: W. Axl Rose, another Midwestern boy who moved to a big city and got famous in a hurry. In "Fargo Rock City," Klosterman presented Rose as something of his headbanging proxy, the projection of countless farm-boy hopes and dreams; "Cocoa Puffs" finds the author on tour with a Guns ' Roses tribute band. It's tempting to see in this juxtaposition a lesson about faded dynasties. But Klosterman, ever the iconoclast, says he saw Axl and his minions on their aborted tour of last year, and that they were "really good." Yet he admits that Rose -- who he suspects may have "some sort of disorder" -- has allowed his career to become the ultimate no-win situation.
"If he puts this `next` record out and it's not brilliant ... , " he grasps for the correct words. "The expectations keep going up because it's been so many years now. I just think he's sort of like a lost person."
Chuck Klosterman, in contrast, has been Found -- with a capital "F." Or maybe that "F" just stands for "Fargo." Either explanation works fine out here in the real world.
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