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Curmudgeon Jr.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto; Chuck Klosterman; Scribner: 256 pp., $23

November 30, 2003|Mark Rozzo | Mark Rozzo is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Some things you should know about Chuck Klosterman: He hates punk rock. He has, at various times, cheated on his girlfriends. He grew up in North Dakota. He doesn't object to eating at KFC. He once traveled with a Guns N' Roses tribute band called Paradise City. He knows way more than you do about TV's "Saved by the Bell." He thinks born-again Christians are cool. He really can't stand Coldplay. He used to work with a guy who went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer. He has occasional bouts of diarrhea. He is, by his own estimation, "America's best-loved semi-pro freelance conversationalist."

Klosterman writes about this and other weighty stuff -- Internet porn, the underappreciated genius of Billy Joel, why soccer is for idiots -- in "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs," a confrontational, scatterbrained, hilarious and annoying roundup of contemporary cultural detritus subtitled "A Low Culture Manifesto." For readers in their 20s and 30s -- Klosterman's peer group and target demographic -- these digressive, chatty essays will summon memories of countless dining hall and dive-bar conversations.

Klosterman is, after all, his own best subject, even when he's deconstructing the manner in which Pamela Anderson performed her wifely duties on Tommy Lee or arguing that Shania Twain is "better at expressing the human condition" than Bob Dylan. His many tastes and anti-tastes add up to a portrait of the essayist as a young curmudgeon or just a random guy who lived on your hall freshman year. He has no objection to the wince-inducing term "Generation X," and that makes perfect sense: The Klosterman who emerges in these ranting disquisitions represents nearly everything you need to know about persons born between, say, 1969 and 1979.

Perhaps that's hyperbole. But hyperbole is one thing Klosterman is a master of, and he often gets things startlingly right: "Science fiction tends to be philosophy for stupid people." "The newspaper industry is now controlled by page designers." "Half the time, [Bruce] Springsteen writes like someone typing a PG-13 letter for Penthouse Forum."

But this eternally adolescent iconoclast can get things dreadfully wrong. Pamela Anderson is not, let's hope, the "most crucial woman of her generation." And for members of the Greatest Generation, it probably wasn't impossible to imagine (as Klosterman contends) Marilyn Monroe doing some of the things Anderson was caught doing on the family camcorder. Also, there is just no way that the 1980s Celtics were Republicans and the Lakers were Democrats. Just look at Pat Riley's slicked-back hair.

Klosterman, you see, always dares us to take him too seriously, which is precisely what angry readers were doing early this year after the New York Times ran a diatribe by Klosterman that compared and contrasted the deaths of Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone and Ratt guitarist Robbin Crosby. The gist: Crosby's band sold a zillion records throughout the 1980s, therefore he gets no respect. Ramone's band hardly sold any records, so he's widely eulogized. Klosterman, a heavy metal fan whose first book, "Fargo Rock City," was an engaging memoir detailing his youthful obsession with hair bands, cried foul. It was all those smarter-than-thou rock critics who made the Ramones "significant," not anything intrinsic in the music. Klosterman returns to this pet theme again and again. Is "Born to Run" really no better than "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights"? You might go along with that. But surely there's a qualitative difference between George Jones and Toby Keith. Isn't there? Just because smart people like something, it isn't necessarily bad. It boils down to that old relativist argument we all had exams on in college: Who controls the canon? Klosterman has come along to turn this handy syllogistic tool loose upon stuff that people actually talk about: Not T.S. Eliot but Van Halen, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Puck Rainey from MTV's "The Real World." Klosterman, you suspect, has released the intellectual equivalent of kudzu into the fragile cultural-discourse ecosystem. Where will it end?

Klosterman's pop-culture appetite is like that of a hungry trucker at a Sizzler salad bar. It's his very voraciousness that gives him an aura of ex cathedra authority. He's John Ruskin for the Sid and Marty Krofft generation. He's perfect junk food for the soul. *

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