Book Review: I Wear the Black Hat

Chuck Klosterman

I Wear the Black Hat

by Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, 242pp., $25

The subject matter of postmodernist cultural critic Chuck Klosterman's latest tome, the villain in American society since the Seventies, couldn't be a better fit. After all, there is no humorist alive who seems to thrive more on being unlikable.

Honestly, it's my taste. Klosterman's books consistently sell well. Snark-as-humor and a cultural perspective finding it hipper to prefer Poison to the Pixies apparently works for most. This stance informs everything he's written from Fargo Rock City and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs onward. In the right hands – say, H.L. Mencken's or Ambrose Bierce's – humorous essays can be witty, thrilling, deadly accurate, and truly funny. In lesser hands, such as P.J. O'Rourke's or (yes) Klosterman's, it becomes the literary equivalent of the troublemaker at the back of the classroom, cracking wise and launching spitballs – funny only at the most base level and not clever in the least.

This time, Klosterman's excesses are overshadowed (mostly) by the subject matter. He begins with an actual history of the old melodramatic cliche of the black-hatted, mustachioed villain, tying a damsel in distress to railroad tracks, tracing it from a real-life incident reported in an 1874 edition of the New York Times through to Snidely Whiplash, the heel of the Dudley Do-Right cartoon series of the Sixties. From there, I Wear The Black Hat analyzes the odd transformation of Machiavelli's The Prince into a self-help bible for rappers. Then proceeds a rogue's gallery involving Joe Paterno, Republican politicians ranging from Gingrich and Bush and Cheney to (yes) Rick Perry, on to D.B. Cooper, Bernie Goetz, Julian Assange, Kanye West, LeBron James, and Andrew Dice Clay. Along the way, he offers sharp analyses of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and Seinfeld's impact on the modern world. The book works best proposing intriguing ideas: the lack of imagination in examining Adolf Hitler (which Klosterman does anyway); how Muhammad Ali was actually villainous for villainizing Joe Frazier; how hating the Eagles is overrated (mostly because he is, as he puts it, "contractually obligated" to do so). Of course, he concludes with himself, for hating admirable former professional baseball player Rick Helling since attending a one-week basketball camp with him in their youth and seeing him display some jerky teenage behavior.

Ultimately, I Wear The Black Hat is a revelation. Given the right material, Chuck Klosterman can produce worthy material. He can still annoy, but it's apropos this time.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Chuck Klosterman
New In Fiction
Downtown Owl: A Novel
Downtown Owl: A Novel

Audra Schroeder, Oct. 3, 2008

More Arts Reviews
<i>The Teacher</i> by Michal Ben-Naftali
The Teacher
This prize-winning novel's tale of a student piecing together the hidden life of her teacher, a Holocaust survivor who killed herself, is haunting

Jay Trachtenberg, Feb. 14, 2020

<i>The Dutch House</i> by Ann Patchett
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
In her eighth novel, Ann Patchett shows that what makes a family cannot be measured by the grandness of a house

Yvette Benavides, Oct. 4, 2019

More by Tim Stegall
New Austin Music Worth Your Bandwidth This Week
New Austin Music Worth Your Bandwidth This Week
What we’re listening to

Sept. 18, 2020

New Austin Music Worth Your Bandwidth This Week
New Austin Music Worth Your Bandwidth This Week
What we’re listening to

Sept. 11, 2020


I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman, villainy, Snidely Whiplash, Joe Paterno, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Muhammad Ali, LeBron James, Kanye West, D.B. Cooper, Julian Assange, the Eagles

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle