Chuck Klosterman talks George Zimmerman, sociopaths and Aaron Hernandez in Boulder
Chuck Klosterman reading from his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)
Returning to the Boulder Book Store for the first time since 2006, Chuck Klosterman was a new breed of literary animal on this visit. Now the author of two fiction novels and a new essay collection about the dark truths of self-deception, Klosterman is no longer the dismissable pop nerd who instructed Boulder audiences on how to freebase weed off of a dashboard lighter seven years earlier. Whether he's improved or sustained his relevance is up for debate, but Chuck Klosterman has definitely cemented a reputation for himself with the high-brow academics and self-hating nihilists.
After admitting he was surprised and intimidated by the five-dollar cover the bookstore charged for his performance, the author offered some anecdotes about why public readings of books are ridiculous -- followed by a public reading of his book. As with most Klosterman appearances, though, the real magic was in the Q&A, when his riffing on topics ranging from George Zimmerman to media microculture and the difference between sociopaths and villains reveals what a turbine of analysis this farmboy from North Dakota has churning in his head.
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But first, the reading: In 2006, Klosterman read aloud the memorable story from Killing Yourself to Live when he discovered that a small bag of shake (pot crumbs), a short straw and the hot coils of a Ford Taurus cigarette lighter can really turn around a lonely night in Wyoming. This time, the reading was about sports. Sports and conquering a preoccupation with the self.
Apparently Klosterman attended basketball camp with future Marlins pitcher Rick Helling. This is amazing primarily because Klosterman grew up Wyndmere, North Dakota, an isolated hamlet with a booming population of 450. During the course of basketball camp, the future-author grew to hate Helling, and would write about this hatred thirty years later in an Esquire column. Helling became known as an early whistleblower on steroids in baseball, and despite this heroic feat, Klosterman refuses to alter his villainous view of him. He knows it's wrong, but he does it anyway -- because that is the reality that he has chosen.
"I have come to believe that overcoming a self-focused world-view is impossible," Klosterman explained, reading from his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). "Life can be experienced only through an imaginary mirror that allows us to occupy the center of a story that no one is telling. I don't think the human mind is capable of getting outside of that box, and I'm not even sure if this is problematic."
Despite his distaste for readings, Klosterman delivers his material with an enthusiasm and cadence that would match any standup comic -- a performance strangely enhanced by his lispy, over-articulate voice, like a slightly warmer version of The Simpsons comic book guy. And he's just as organic and engaged moments when the questions began flying, revealing himself as less of a writer and more of the hyper guy who can't stop thinking.
"It's a lot like the O.J. case: People's reaction to the case is really just an attempt to reestablish their own political worldview. We're not really very informed about this case. I could tell you what I think happened, but in truth, we have a situation where no one saw it except the gunman and the guy who got shot. We have a legal system set up so that when there is death, and it is unwitnessed, in all likelihood they can't find anyone guilty. I understand why it was hard to convict this guy of first-degree murder; I don't understand why manslaughter has not entered the equation. Seems like the definition of it: a man was slaughtered.
"It would be easy for me to give an answer that I know would be popular here, I know people would cheer. But I don't like doing that."
Klosterman on whether being insane makes you better at sports: "Aaron Hernandez was a good tight-end for the New England Patriots, but smoked a lot of weed and liked to take pictures of himself holding a gun to his face . . . and he probably shot three guys. Now does that quality, that brutality, what some would consider a sociopath, is that an advantage to an athlete? It is. To some degree.
"I've made the same point about Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He at one point was accused of, essentially, rape -- and was suspended for four games. The thing is, among professional quarterbacks, he is the toughest one, the grittiest one. Is that some kind of a reflection of the person he is outside of football? Probably. Football is a really brutal sport -- and my favorite sport -- and this situation illustrates that we are watching something that is killing people, for our entertainment."
Klosterman on the decline of news media: "The problem is not technology-based, like most people think it is. I think that people are more informed than ever, because there are so many different sources for media, but they're getting informed in a different way.
"Somewhere in the late '80s and early '90s, there became this collective recognition that objectivity is impossible. The reaction to that was: If there's no objectivity, let's just give up on trying. And that was the rise of MSNBC and Fox News, and the idea being that if objectivity is just a dream, then let's stop pretending. That was never what people meant when they said journalists can't be objective; what that means was that journalists should recognize their biases and compensate for them.
"Today people want to hear things and watch things that reflect their own bias. What we're getting is: People are more informed about things they already have an ingrained feeling about. And the more educated they become, the more they move to the fringe.
"And there's also the financial concerns. The Internet has become a better way to look for an apartment or a car than classified ads. We removed classifieds from newspapers because Craigslist was a better system. But classifieds were a steady income stream for a newspaper, and when they lost that money they had to make cuts. What do you cut? You can't cut they guy covering the police, you can't cut the woman covering city council. So you cut the arts and lifestyle coverage -- and what you're cutting are essentially all the stories that originally drove interest to the publication. The other stories are technically more important, but that's not why people read the paper. Those other stories were a first draft of history, which nobody gives a shit about, until it actually is history and then we look back. The problem is the newspapers will have disappeared and we'll have nothing to look back to."
Klosterman continued on with anecdotes of reading Sherlock Holmes in Amsterdam, co-founding the publication Grantland and why he's rekindled his love of metal. Then, with a moment of award-acceptance gratitude, he said, "I know this always sounds disingenuous, but this is totally true: It's so weird to have you all look at me up here, and listen to me, it's so flattering. I'll never get over how weird it is, and how great it makes me feel. You come out here and listen to me talk about nothing, but laugh and like it. I appreciate it."
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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