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Chuck Klosterman IV A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas Chuck Klosterman Scribner: 374 pp., $25

September 24, 2006|Kevin Smokler | Kevin Smokler is the editor of the collection "Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times."

YOU'VE got to hand it to Chuck Klosterman. In just under a decade, the journalist has built a national following that adores, loathes and shrugs him off in equal proportions. Given that he's done it writing both magazine and book-length ruminations on why '80s metal still matters makes his achievements less about hard work or hipster cred than a mystery of our cultural attention span.

It's the right time then to release "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas," a compendium of columns and feature stories for periodicals such as Esquire, Spin and the New York Times magazine. Collected works usually come at points of retrospection, when writers decide to abandon old tricks or lie comfortably in their velvet rut (they're also quick and easy for publishers of a marketable author, a likely factor here). Because Klosterman's work usually reads as though he's buried chin-deep in his own bellybutton, this may be the most reflective look we get at his career.

For the three people left without an opinion, here's what you need to know. Klosterman grew up outside Fargo, N.D., in the 1980s and has written three books about heavy metal, rock star deaths and trashy pop culture (the 2003 bestseller "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto"). His journalism resembles that of a befuddled Malcolm Gladwell. Where Gladwell takes a cultural assumption and debunks it with an assured layering of evidence and analysis, Klosterman gets there through a series of if-then statements padded with "maybes" and "sort-ofs."

"In order to enjoy the Olympics," he contends in a piece that appeared in Esquire in 2004, "you can't think critically about anything; you just have to root for America ... and assume that your feelings are inherently correct.... [T]hey ask us to support athletes solely because they happen to stand on U.S. floors.... We could toss a bunch of serial killers into the pool in Athens, and we'd still be told to support their run for water polo gold. And isn't that style of thinking the core of every major (and minor) problem we have in this country?"

Whereas Gladwell's work implies that the world is understandable if we reach beyond our conceits, the world confuses the heck out of Klosterman, and most of his pieces are failed struggles to understand it. Depending on how charming or necessary you find that effort, Klosterman is either the voice of a generation, "toxic, disingenuous and stupid" as the New York Press weekly has claimed on several occasions, or that college friend you let rattle on about "Baywatch" because he's kinda funny but mostly harmless.

I fall into group No. 3. Klosterman and I are the same age, both white-guy, now-coastal Midwesterners who (still) love Poison and remain baffled by the Smiths. But his books no more speak to my generational concerns than the classmates at my 15th year high school reunion did this summer. We enjoyed one another's company based on shared background and cultural flashpoints. That Klosterman gets paid to obsess about those things saves me the trouble.

Klosterman has plenty of detractors who accuse him of narcissism, false cleverness and dismissing their criticisms with "I'm just a kid from Fargo" dishonesty. They are correct -- and miss the point. Klosterman's work doesn't ask you to listen but to watch him think. His hyper-focus resembles a kind of baby New Journalism, blabbering truths about the genre that it doesn't let itself admit. Gay Talese may insist he is never part of the story, but wasn't his choice to hang out with Frank Sinatra for the famous 1966 Esquire magazine profile as significant as choosing to focus on the singer's head cold?

Perhaps it's too bad then that "Chuck Klosterman IV" works best in those pieces that make an argument. A pair of essays on "guilty pleasures" and the "importance" of one musician's death over another's are lucid broadsides against the tyranny of taste and, indirectly, rock criticism itself. They remind us that Klosterman's obliviousness toward his job's self-importance -- a rock critic without taste, a journalist with little interest in story -- may be a significant reason for the acid some hurl at him.

The collection has three unhelpfully titled sections: "Things That Are True" (it really should be called "Profiles of Musicians"), "Things That Might Be True" (800-word one-offs on such subjects as monogamy, pirates and television) and "Something That Isn't True At All" (A 30-page short story that can be skipped). Old fans can read straight through, comfortable that Klosterman's charms, snarky footnotes and all, have changed little since his first book, "Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota." Newcomers should start by reading the first piece in sections one and two in his new book. With rare exceptions, that's what the rest of it offers. If you smile, read on.

Overall, "Chuck Klosterman IV" is practical but not necessary, useful rather than enlightening. It doesn't tell us how his career divides readers so neatly into three piles. But it does leave us to wonder whether, moving forward, he will keep sculpting those piles or leave this decade-long sandbox after kicking them over. *

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