In an essay from his 2009 collection, Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman reasons that because most television laugh tracks are stock recordings, many of which were made decades ago, when we watch our favorite sitcoms, we can be “100 percent confident that somebody chuckling in the background is six feet under.”
For those who know it, this unseemly aside has likely transformed every episode of sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother into a veritable horror show. But it also confirms this: Klosterman is at his best and funniest when revealing the sinister hidden in plain sight. Occultist Aleister Crowley on the front of Sgt. Pepper’s or satanist Anton LaVey on the back of Hotel California—the sort of things that freak us out a bit more than they reasonably should.
This is why his newest collection, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), so often feels like Klosterman in his element. In a dozen essays, and with his signature borderline-neurotic analysis of pop culture, he makes a point to approach the reproachable, taking on a range of villains such as Ted Bundy and Hitler, as well as your more run-of-the-mill assholes (see the passage on Newt Gingrich’s “liberal” child labor laws and proposed colonization of the moon).
The most compelling essays nod to the public’s hypocrisy when it comes to a hero/villain dichotomy. This is, after all, a collection that dives right in with an explanation of why Machiavelli was not really Machiavellian at all.
In “Easier Than Typing,” Klosterman makes the case that, whether he’s a singing Adam West or stony Christian Bale, most people accept Batman as a superhero, but would never condone vigilantism, especially at the hands of a squirrel-obsessed recluse like Bernhard Goetz. Similarly, he explores why fictional drug-dealers like Stringer Bell, Walter White, and Nancy Botwin became protagonists of their respective TV series.
The two most complex critiques in the collection concern the two most publicized scandals of the ’90s, although Klosterman has perhaps put enough time between us and the unpleasantness, because his hierarchy of culpability in the Lewinsky scandal feels like a fresh angle, and he makes a potent case for why the existence of O.J. Simpson’s 2007 autobiography, If I Did It, is “deeply, vastly, hysterically underrated.” It’s not until he turns to recent subject matter, as in the 2011 Arizona shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, that the villains begin to seem like a palpable threat, lurking perilously close to our own cultural home.
But make no mistake, Klosterman is as calculating and sharp as ever. While his own experience—such as the epiphany of listening to Straight Outta Compton for the first time in a North Dakota college dorm—often sets the arguments in play, his feelings on culture are rarely allowed to muck up the text with personal preference before they’re swiftly wrangled and dissected (with the notable exception of one meticulously kept list of all the bands he’s ever hated from 1984 to the present). Ultimately, these essays make for enjoyable intellectual candy—they exhibit a masterful ability to objectively critique deplorable personalities, even when the personality is Perez Hilton’s.