Chuck Klosterman explores the dark side

The Baltimore Sun

Read "I Wear the Black Hat," Chuck Klosterman's book about villainy that includes his often-provocative takes on pop culture figures from Kanye West to Bill Clinton, and it's easy to imagine him standing by a set of railroad tracks, sneering and twirling his mustache.

Then talk to the red-bearded author about the backlash that his thoughtful provocation has received, and it's just as easy to picture him lashed to those same tracks.

Yup — there Chuck is, his torso wrapped in rope and his head propped on a rail, looking oddly comfortable as a locomotive belching steam moves inexorably toward him.

Chug, chug, chug.

All this is to say that Klosterman, 42, who will appear at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the Literary Salon at the Baltimore Book Festival, writes counterintuitive essays about controversial pop artists, sports stars and politicians. As he sees it, the lives of such famous folk as Muhammad Ali and LeBron James reveal interesting things about what contemporary culture believes that it values — as opposed to what society actually prizes.

He's one of about 200 authors expected to raise an intellectual ruckus at this weekend's 19th annual festival, which moved to the Inner Harbor this year for the first time because of the renovation of the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon.

The free, three-day event running today through Sunday features readings, signings, lectures, panel discussions, workshops, cooking demonstrations, story-telling sessions and children's activities. Klosterman joins an impressive roster of big-name author guests this year, including Alice McDermott, Tavis Smiley, Bill T. Jones and Andre Dubus III.

In "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)," Klosterman offers 14 essays that explore those celebrities the culture enshrines, those who get demonized and why. (He notes playfully that in popular culture, the most villainous deed anyone can commit is tying another person to the railroad tracks.)

For instance, the book contains an essay that attempts to figure out why Klosterman likes West but is eager for him to fail, while he roots for LeBron James, whom the author dislikes. Klosterman also has drawn comparisons in interviews between former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, both of whom, he says, placed the nation in jeopardy.

"I was going to write about Nixon and did not, but instead ended up bringing Bill Clinton into the book," the author says. "It probably would not thrill Bill Clinton to realize that he and Monica Lewinsky are a replacement for the Nixon essay, but that's how it goes."

Chug, chug, chug.

More than a year after the book was published, Klosterman still isn't completely sure he knows what makes someone a villain. As he puts it:

"The closest I came was to say that in any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least."

In other words, someone becomes perceived as a villain when they have "an amplified ability to manipulate the culture, but they don't care what that manipulation does to the world," he says. "When that quality becomes exposed, that's what really bothers people."

Klosterman, who grew up on a North Dakota farm, has worked for magazines such as "Spin" and "Esquire," but his most recent high-profile gig is writing "The Ethicist" column for "The New York Times Magazine."

He says he doesn't think of himself as the "Ann Landers" or the "Dear Abby" for the nation's newspaper of record.

"In some ways I suppose it's similar, but the emphasis is a little different," he says.

"I see my columns as non-fictional thought problems. What I'm really trying to do is find the ethical and moral crux of the scenario that can apply to lots of other people. When someone writes to the other advice columnists, that's sort of a way to connect with another person. Someone like Ann Landers is really empathetic."

Klosterman has been writing the column for a little more than two years. Before that, he was best known for his two novels and six nonfiction books, and in particular his 2003 book of essays, "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs." The collection became a best seller, but also ticked off some readers. For the first time in his life, Klosterman found himself lambasted in reviews, which accused him of being vain, surly and throwing tantrums.

"Suddenly, I was in a position where people were writing about me and questioning my motives," he says.

"The book was about the importance and meaning of low culture and how it doesn't really matter what art you're interested in. It just matters how you think about that art. I sort of see the same thing in some retrograde sitcom as you do in Proust.

"Some people found this very problematic, and they framed me as some kind of cultural villain who actually was trying to hurt the discourse."

Chug, chug.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The Baltimore Book Festival will be held from noon to 8 p.m. today and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Inner Harbor. Admission is free. For more information, go to baltimorebookfestival.com.

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