|A Review By Rebecca James|
|Killing Yourself to Live Chuck Klosterman (2005)
On my facebook page, I have this nifty little application called Visual Bookshelf where I can post what I'm reading at any given time and assign it stars, comments, and status updates like "want to read," "currently reading," and "finished reading." This valuable information, along with a picture of the cover of the book is then shared like a mini-news feed with all of my "friends" who have the same application. It speaks volumes (read: we're a bunch of dorky English majors) about my choices in friends that almost half have this feature. Hanging out on my "want to read" list for sometime has been Chuck Klosterman, a talented young writer who has contributed to Spin, Esquire, and other magazines.
Earlier this year, one of my more easily-distracted Advanced Placement students was multi-tasking by taking notes, participating in our discussion, and reading what looked like a novel on the sly. When I wandered near her in my blathering (I think I probably sound a lot like Charlie Brown's teacher so I don't do this for long), she sheepishly started to tuck the book away. I stopped her. Hell, if a kid wants to read, I'm not gonna argue. She handed me the book to examine: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, the title read. "It's not what it looks like!" she said. I grinned. "It looks awesome. Can I borrow it?" It turns out that this less-than-innocuous title, Chuck Klosterman's second book, was a bestselling collection of pop culture essays.
Now I always prefer non-fiction, and I can read about a variety of topics, but pop culture critics are often my favorite. It always fascinates me to have these types of writers not only point out the little weird elements of the world that surrounds us, but expound on why they came to be and what the possible effects were. There are no right answers in pop culture criticism. Who can positively say that the deaths of Lynyrd Skynyrd's guitarist, singer, and back-up singer in a 1977 plane crash altered the course of musical history?
Well, no one might even try, but it is fun to think about the impact of certain eventscall it the "what if" theory (a conversation usually best accompanied by some type of smokeable substance). Klosterman is no exceptionhis quest in Killing Yourself to Live, his third pop culture collection, explores the perfect topic to accompany his endlessand bawdy and very, very funnydiatribes on seemingly unrelated topics: the death and subsequent life of rock and roll. "Let me begin by saying this: Death is a part of life. Generally, it's the shortest part of life, usually occurring near the end. However, this is not necessarily true for rock stars; sometimes rock stars don't start living until they die. I want to understand why that is." Let the good times roll.
Don't fool yourself into thinking that Killing is a dense, fact-packed, and detailed museum of rock history. Klosterman's book reads more like a journal of his thoughts on his 6,000+ mile car journey throughout the continental United States, beginning with packing ("F***, man.
This shit is complicated [...] I could never be one of those people who climb mountains recreationally; I'd be one of the clowns who dies halfway down Everest because I'd bring extra powdered cocoa instead of extra rope."). Armed with 600 essential CDs to accompany him in his rental ("Death rides a pale horse, but I shall ride a silver Taurus."), Klosterman sets off in the vague direction of the site of the Great White Pyrotechnics explosion (with a brief stop for one of three women who become the true focus of Klosterman's ranting).
Along the way, readers get brief glimpses into rock history tickled by Klosterman's modest opinions on the intrinsic worth of each musician ("In 1976, Gregg Allman [of the Allman Brother's band] testified against a longtime roadie who ended up taking the fall in a well-publicized heroin and pharmaceutical cocaine bust, so I suppose that qualifies him as a narc. But who am I to judge? You can never trust Drug People, and other Drug People should know that."). Much more interesting, however, are the constant thoughts bouncing in this writer's brain. He moves seamlessly and humorously between analyzing the people he encounters on his journey (like the Kafka-quoting Cracker Barrel waitress whom Klausterman responds internally to with, "And at the risk of sounding condescending and elitist, this blows my fucking mind.") and his relationships with women and his own youth:
"When you start thinking about what your life was like 10 years agoand not in general terms, but in highly specific detailit's disturbing to realize how certain elements of your being are completely dead. They die long before you do. It's astonishing to consider all of the things from your past that used to happen all the time but (a) never happen anymore, and (b) never even cross your mind. It's almost like those things didn't happen. Or maybe it seems like they just happened to someone else. To someone you don't really know. To someone you just hung out with for one night, and now you can't even remember her name."
And with that, readers move from pop culture to self-reflection. Stop and think about what he's actually saying for a moment. Remember the last time a little piece of your life that you forgot existed popped back into your memory, just for a second? Just enough to make you realize it was missing? For me, so many parts of 10 years ago are best left forgotten, but there are a few moments that have returned in recent months that are overwhelmingly, refreshingly, good. Stay up all night talking about music. Expound on the virtues of a restaurant that serves chicken dumplings with a side of chicken dumplings. Play a game of Guitar Hero and don't care if you look stupidrock out like you're 12 years old again and making up dances to Madonna or the Shirelleswhatever your generation might be. Laugh until you cry at absolutely nothing, but this time don't forget that it's possible.
Try not to kill yourself to live. But do try to read the bookhis next release is a novel this fall. Be ready.
Rebecca James divides her time between studying for grad classes and teaching in Pennsylvania and reading and relaxing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Email comments or suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 10 July 25, 2008