Chuck Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live is like a road film for rock geeks. Or it's a midlife crisis tale for those not really in midlife and in only the most existential of crises. In any event, it very well could be the geekiest travel narrative ever written.
For the unaware, Klosterman is the reigning king of nerdy pop culture criticism. How nerdy? We're talking about a man over 30 years old who proudly admits to having watched every "Real World" episode no fewer than three times. And who doesn't find it even the least bit shameful to fess that he can understand his romantic relationships only as they relate to Kiss albums.
North Dakota-raised but now Manhattan-based, Klosterman talks populist intellectualism that encompasses everything from reality TV to the NBA to urban stereotypes. But he's probably better known as the author of heavy metal memoir Fargo Rock City and the essay collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.
In Killing Yourself, he rents a Ford Taurus (which he dubs "the Tauntan") and drives across the U.S., visiting the famous places where music has died. That is, the way music tends to die in America: young and hard. From the Rhode Island nightclub where 100 fans of hair band Great White perished in a freak fire, to an Iowa field where the plane carrying Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly met its fiery end, Klosterman is on hand to "get his death on."
While he has a passion for music and its accompanying lore, Klosterman's none too crazy about being behind the wheel.
"I hate driving," he explains, before extending the act of steering a car into something at once bigger and smaller. "I like the experience of living; I just hate the process of living. I'm a little agoraphobic. I like being in my apartment."
Spoken like a true New Yorker.
Part of the revelation on Klosterman's 8,000-mile journey is that there's little revelation.
"When I went to the place where the Allman brothers were killed, I realized [that] I had all these ideas in my mind about what these places mean. I'd have this expectation of what I should feel. When I got there I realized it was a road -- just a road."
The larger point, according to Klosterman at least, has to do with the meaning people attach to these places.
For one who's more than a little reverent regarding the music he loves (Mtley Cre, Kiss, GN'R), it's surprising to find that he despises an American-music sacred ground like Graceland. As he sees it, there's a difference between a personal relationship with a band and deification of a pop star to fill a role once reserved for monarchs.
"I'm very careful not to say I like Mtley Cre because they're great. It's completely personal. I see people who really seem to be caught up in the idea of, 'Boy, it would be great if we had some American-pop royalty.' They want to have universally shared idols.
"It was very similar to what happened with [Kurt] Cobain's death. All of these people with a tangential relationship to the band wanted to have a shared experience of mourning. I think with Graceland, it's the epitome of that, the glorification of, in some ways, the saddest parts of American culture. I like to think that I'm very populist, but I don't see myself as a fan of ... the glorification of kitchiness as normalcy."
Spoken like a true New York rock critic.
-- John Dicker
Killing Yourself to Live:
85% of a True Story
by Chuck Klosterman
(Scribner: New York)