Book Review: Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat


My dad’s side of the family is fairly huge, so several years ago it was decided that we’d just do a pirate/white elephant/rob your buddy Christmas gift exchange. You know, one of those ones where everyone tosses in something as a gift (I usually contributed booze) and then people pick stuff pretty much at random and have the option to trade with/steal from the other folks. Good times!

In any case, one of the items up for grabs was the audiobook of Chuck Klosterman’s novel, Downtown Owl. My aunt, who had contributed the book, gleefully noted: “I only picked it up because it says it’s from the same author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.

This book is actually kind of meandering and pointless, with a rather grim ending, which makes it a pretty accurate representation of Midwestern life, which in turn makes it SERIOUS LITERATURE, or something.

At which point I said “I’ve read Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs!” and swapped a Courage the Cowardly Dog DVD set for the audiobook. Seeing as of how Courage is on Netflix now, I’d say I came out ahead.

What I mean to say is, I enjoy Chuck Klosterman’s work. Which is why I snagged I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains(Real And Imagined) on one of my (many) trips to Half Price Books.

I once dressed up like Snidely Whiplash and saw Electric Six play a Halloween show. This has nothing to do with the book but I thought I’d share anyway.

Klosterman is a fun writer, specializing in pop-culture postmodernism. He’s written several collections of essays that meander this way and that, touching on both his own personal experience and that of American culture as a whole. I Wear the Black Hat is a little more focused than some of his earlier work, in that the overarching theme of the book is the nature of evil- or rather, the perception therof.

Klosterman’s book operates on a pretty simple thesis: “In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.” (Pg 14). Based on this premise, he goes on to muse about people our society sees as villains- for better or worse. Jerry Sandusky, O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Fred Durst, to name a few. Oh, and Hitler, in a chapter called “Hitler is in this Book.” He felt a bit obligated to write about Hitler.

As the book meanders this way and that, it becomes pretty obvious that what makes a “villain” in any given scenario is really a matter of perception, which inevitably changes over time. Klosterman often asks why we hate (or don’t hate) certain individuals- though sometimes it doesn’t seem he digs deep enough. I mean, I could’ve easily told him why Fred Durst’s a douchebag, but that’s neither here nor there.

One thing that kind of surprised me about the book was how often Klosterman pulled from real life. I suppose it’s a tragic thing that we have so many horrible people to draw on. Still, given Klosterman’s pop-culture geekiness, I kind of expected more fictional examples. Though there is a really good passage on Snidely Whiplash early on, not to mention some stuff exploring why people root for Walter White despite him being a horrible, horrible person. There’s also a really fun chapter exploring vigilantism, comparing Batman, Bernard Goetz, and Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies.

Klosterman is a sports geek, and he often draws on this to illustrate his points, often getting down to specific players or announcers who were seen as villains for one reason or another. And, while I’m really not much of a sports fan myself, Klosterman never gets geeky enough to be exclusionary- I imagine another reader might focus more on the sports aspects and in turn get confused by some of the pop culture-y stuff.

At the end of the day (or, well, the book), Klosterman really doesn’t reveal too much about the nature of evil- it’s worth noting that Klosterman’s writing about villainy, which is kind of different, when you think about it. And while I wouldn’t set about citing Klosterman in any theology papers or anything, I still enjoyed the read. Well worth checking out if you’re in the mood to read about the bad guys- and why we call them that.



1 Comment

  1. cookies!

    I am deeply disturbed that people like Walter White and Dexter. Just … ewwww

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