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I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)

Chuck Klosterman

(Scribner; US: Jul 2013)

I have to go to the dentist every four months or so, owing to the fact that I have a propensity towards getting cavities since I have a condition called dry mouth due to some medications that I’m taking. And the dentist I see has a tendency towards two things: making very dull, boring and groan-inducing jokes (“Hey, when you work in the mouth all day, your humour is in the mouth,” claims my dentist by means of explanation) and offering liberal editorials (I’ll never have to read another Canadian newspaper for op-ed screeds against Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper; my dentist does this for me).


Anyhow, my last visit coincided with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and, as usual, my dentist had something to say about it, as he went about his business in my mouth with his cleaning utensils and all I could do was gargle in mock agreement. Now, I didn’t have a tape recorder on me, and I’m sure if I did, I probably wouldn’t catch more than the rrrr-rrrr-rrrr of his cleaning drill, but I’ll loosely paraphrase what I believe he had to say:


“You know, these guys who bombed the Boston Marathon are viewed as terrorists, but that’s only because they used a bomb. If you use a gun in America, you’re not a terrorist, but a clean-cut American guy. Look at the dude who shot that school full of kids. He killed 26 people, 20 of them children, which is 23 more people than the Boston Marathon bombers killed in their initial act, but he’s not a terrorist. Because he used a gun. Look at the guy who shot up that movie theatre in Colorado. Because he used a gun, he’s not a terrorist, either. Just a good ol’ American boy who loves apple pie.”


Now, I’m not here to agree with my dentist, and in truth, I think what he had to say was perhaps over-simplifying gun culture in America. (I find that Canadians are beleaguered by what goes on in the States and are unable to adequately rationalize what goes on in the prevailing culture simply by means of not having experienced it firsthand.) And I don’t think that Americans view Adam Lanza and James Eagan Holmes as folk heroes because they (allegedly, as, in one example, the case is still making its way through the courts) used guns and not bombs in committing rather heinous crimes. But what my dentist had to say is useful and interesting in the context of pop culturist Chuck Klosterman’s latest collection of essays, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined), because the author’s argument in this short (199 pages, not counting the index and acknowledgements page) but sprawling book is that people are fascinated with the bad guys in some respects – elevating some of them to hero status – while other villains are completely vilified and evil.


The rationale behind the book seems to lodge in Klosterman’s fascination with villains in popular entertainment: he sides more with Darth Vader as he finds this character more interesting (but fails to justify what makes Darth Vader so intriguing). But the book seems to argue that there are levels of villainy, just as my dentist seems to believe, among figures who have entered the pop culture consciousness.


So what makes a villain? According to Klosterman, who is the author of a couple of novels (and his last, The Visible Man is a must-read) and non-fiction books such as Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Eating the Dinosaur, it’s simply a person who “knows the most, but cares the least.” (The sole exception to this rule is Adolf Hitler, who seemingly didn’t know the most but cared an awful lot behind what he was doing.) To wit, we look in extreme distaste at people like late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, because he knew that the team’s longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, “was a pedophile and a rapist,” but Peterno chose to do absolutely nothing about it. (He knew the most, but cared the least.) And that designation extends to people like former US president Bill Clinton, who knew what he was doing with Monica Lewinsky, but seemingly didn’t care about the implications it would have on his presidency.


But that’s not what makes I Wear the Black Hat ultimately so absorbing. Klosterman argues that there are shades of evil: some people we outright vilify (O.J. Simpson), while people like Clinton still enjoy a rather high approval rating among women. We don’t look at someone like convicted cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer as anything but pure evil (but that’s largely due to the fact that he wasn’t terribly photogenic), but serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy gets off to a degree because he was a smooth operator and a completely charismatic man – so charismatic, in fact, that he escaped prison because his handlers seemingly didn’t feel threatened by him, or didn’t believe that he would attempt to escape while doing research on his case in a library (Bundy escaped by jumping out of the library’s second floor window, which allowed him to continue his career of evil for a number of years).


But there are other things at work. According to Klosterman, we vilify people who push technology on us. We don’t just look at Kim Dotcom for being a bad person who has a Web service that allows people to easily share music files over the Internet and thus infringes copyright; we hate him because he positions himself as someone who feels that this kind of change is inevitable. Same goes for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks: he’s a “worldwide irritant” who has been accused of sexually assaulting two women in Sweden (which would already make him evil) and whose “appearance is so Aryan that it seems like he was engineered by the kind of scientist who ends up hiding in Argentina”, but he publishes the kind of classified military information on a technological platform that may, in fact, wind up in someone getting killed, which may make him villainous in some people’s eyes.


I have to wonder what Klosterman thinks of Edward Snowden, whose emergence is too recent for this book. Is Snowden evil for leaking classified US intelligence? Or is he a likable villain for seemingly having rather handsome good looks? (To wit, I guess I’m a bit confused. But maybe it comes down to Klosterman’s adage: Snowden may know the most, but it seems like he cares an awful lot about what he knows. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all.)


The book is most interesting when positing on our views of what makes a man (or woman, but mostly men, here) truly evil. For example, it’s probably a given that anyone who hijacks a plane a la Mohamed Atta is a devious character, right? But wait!, says Klosterman. Consider the case of D.B. Cooper. He hijacked a plane, stole $200,000 in ransom money, and put the lives of innocents at risk, but because he was dressed in a suit and seemed utterly charming and in control, he’s revered as a folk hero who is “historically indestructible”. In fact, there’s a small village in Washington state that commemorates the 1971 air crime every November, “which is not that distant from celebrating a prison break or a bank heist.” While Klosterman observes that “I’m not trying to argue that Cooper and Mohamed Atta are ultimately the same. They are fundamentally different,” he does go on to say, “But that shouldn’t make them opposites, because they do share a massive similarity.” It’s a fascinating look at why we vilify some people a lot, and others who perpetuate the same sort of act only just some.


There are other interesting chapters, such as why Batman, despite being unreal (and in the end because he is unreal), is championed as a perpetrator of justice even though he really is just a vigilante, and Bernhard Goetz, a racist who shot four black men on a New York subway in late 1984 thinking that they were about to rob him, is demonized for doing pretty much the same thing. (Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish is also raised.) But I’ll let you read the book for that – it’s a rather compelling chapter, even though Klosterman acknowledges, “I’m not the first person who has ever drawn lines between Goetz, Batman, and Bronson.”


In essence, then, I Wear the Black Hat is certainly erudite, but since the book is so short, you can’t help but feel that perhaps Klosterman has bitten off more than he can chew. For example, hegoes on at length about how N.W.A. was perhaps the baddest of all gansta-rap groups for their penchant of wearing garb from such bad-ass football teams such as the Raiders, but has absolutely nothing to say about rap record label CEO Suge Knight, who has been arrested countless times and sent to prison.


And sometimes the book is just plain silly: Klosterman claims that the most villainous act that anyone can do is to tie someone (usually a woman) to railway tracks and that “no nonfictional villain can compete with Snidely Whiplash,” the bad guy of the Dudley Do-Right segments of the ‘60s cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle, for doing just that. And some of the book seems rather superfluous: there’s an entire chapter devoted to why Klosterman hated (for a time) the ‘70s country-rock group the Eagles, then reversed his opinion. (It’s hard to assert that someone like Don Henley is villainous, because the whole argument seems rather preposterous.) In fact, it takes some time before I Wear the Black Hat picks up steam – the examples I give above are from the very front of the book – and starts to be compulsively readable in an “Oh my God, I can’t stop reading this” kind of way.


Still, I Wear the Black Hat will likely be a welcome addition to Klosterman completists, even if this book is a bit darker than some of the author’s usual fare. While it has its funny moments, a lot of it seems to be throwaways, and the book is pretty bleak in tone considering its subject matter. However, I was just talking to a guy who works at my favourite used book store just down the street from me about stuff we were both currently reading or looking forward to, and when I mentioned this book at hand, he claimed that his store can’t keep Klosterman books in stock; they’re seemingly sold not long after one of his books is added to the shelf.


This will probably be true of I Wear the Black Hat: as I write this not long after its release, the book was sitting just outside the Top 100 on Amazon.com, probably owing to Klosterman’s cult-like fan base. So you’re probably going to best enjoy this work if you like his writing, but that’s not to say that others might like this as well. For one, if I don’t wind up selling I Wear the Black Hat to my favourite used book store and making a little extra chump change on the transaction, I think I now know a book that my dentist should probably read. If anything, I Wear the Black Hat makes you think about what is culturally acceptable (and, on the opposite side of the coin, unacceptable) in malicious evil.

Rating:

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, OttawaShowbox.com and more. He also reviews books for bookwookie.ca.


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