There’s a penetrating course on contemporary American obsessions in Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century. And Donald Trump is mentioned only once.
Klosterman, who’s written for The New York Times, GQ, Esquire, and ESPN, is a diabolically intuitive essayist and profiler of music and sports figures. His interviews over the past decade with people including Kobe Bryant, Taylor Swift, Jonathan Franzen, and Jimmy Page—and essays that tackle zombies, Breaking Bad, and steroids—can slightly sabotage your sense of order. “My Zombie, Myself,” written for The New York Times in 2010, declares that viewers are drawn to The Walking Dead “because a lot of modern life is exactly like slaughtering zombies.” If that doesn’t seem like a justifiable statement, he argues, just think of “reading and deleting four hundred work emails on a Monday morning.”
In “The Drugs Don’t Work (Actually, They Work Great)” which he wrote in 2007 for ESPN The Magazine, Klosterman confronts NFL hypocrisy—and then justifies and forgives it. He starts with the suspension of former San Diego Charger Shawne Merriman, “a rhinoceros who moves like a deer,” for steroid use. Franchises and fans condemn individual players like Merriman even as they simultaneously accept the miracle of watching “dozens of 272-pound men accelerate at speeds that would have made them Olympic sprinters during the 1950s.”
Why quibble if “a majority of the NFL is on drugs,” Klosterman asks, when we unconditionally celebrate the creative work the Beatles or Jack Kerouac did when they used what Klosterman calls “performance-enhancing drugs.” (“The most important date in the history of rock music was August 28, 1964,” Klosterman says: that was the day Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to drugs. Eh, there are people, and surely not just those who live in Memphis, who might cite a date ten years earlier, when Elvis met Sam Phillips at Sun.)
Klosterman makes a similar case for relative values in a 2015 interview with Tom Brady for GQ. The conversation with the Patriots quarterback implodes when Klosterman asks about deflated footballs and concludes that Brady is lying. But in the context of “America’s fanatical, perverse obsession with football,” he writes, the athlete and his team are doing what’s required, which is winning, however they can get that to happen: “He is precisely the man society demands him to be,” Klosterman writes.
Klosterman’s 2001 memoir, Fargo Rock City, surveyed 1980s hard rock while hilariously recreating the bleak landscape he inhabited while growing up in rural North Dakota. In X, he revisits that time and place in what he calls his favorite story, first published in 2011 in the now defunct website Grantland. “Three Man Weave” is about a way-beyond-obscure 1988 basketball game between two North Dakota community colleges. While recreating a contest in which a team of three Native American players beat a full and statistically far more impressive team, Klosterman makes a soul-piercing point. The players for United Tribes Technical College, located at a former military base and internment camp, couldn’t even afford to print the school’s name on their jerseys. “Attending school at UT is the polar opposite of idyllic,” he writes. “But that’s how college life was (and still is) for so many Native American students—it’s just that nobody pays attention. No American minority is less represented in the national consciousness.”
This is Klosterman’s tenth book, following two novels and earlier nonfiction collections such as Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and But What If We’re Wrong?, all of which advance his disruptive, sometimes exhilarating, theories. X includes introductory notes and footnotes that supply context, answering such questions as ‘Who is Tim Tebow?’ for those who’ve forgotten.
Famous people are just as good at evading questions as Klosterman is at asking them, but he often prevails in his interviews, coming away with starkly human moments that place a reader in the restaurant, the car, or the train where a conversation took place. In Klosterman’s 2015 story about Taylor Swift, he uses a description of her as ‘calculating’ to draw her out from behind her public front. And he tells Led Zeppelin leading light Jimmy Page, “the second- or third-greatest rock guitarist of all time,” that he is considered ‘unknowable,’” Page answers, “You know who knows me? My clothes. My clothes know me very well.” Fun. But Page also tells Klosterman an elegant story about moving to a suburb in Surrey when he was a child and finding a guitar in the house: “It was just there, like a sculpture…. like an intervention.”
The decisive moment in Klosterman’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom, is off the record, when Franzen “provides one of the most straightforward, irrefutable, and downright depressing answers I’ve ever experienced in an interview.” Then the red light of the recorder goes back on and Franzen resumes his “truthful-but-withholding” posture. Still, the insight Klosterman gained isn’t wasted: “It’s easy to understand why Franzen’s literary characters are so rich and fully realized; he understands himself better than most people I’ve encountered, which is always the first step toward understanding people who aren’t you.” The same could be said of Klosterman’s work as a journalist.
Peggy Burch was books editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis for ten years, and she also worked as a deputy metro editor and Arts & Entertainment editor for the newspaper. She is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Mississippi.