“Oh my God!” gasps a Boston University student as he enters the room. “I’m like a little schoolgirl!” In her excitement, she spits on my knee.
She is Amanda and she has not just seen Brad Pitt. Or David Ortiz. Or the Crocodile Hunter’s ghost. The 34-year-old bearded dude who just caused Amanda to expectorate is not bringing sexy back. Rather, he is a six-foot-two native North Dakotan who has been called everything from “the voice of a generation” to “the new Hunter S. Thompson” to a “saggy ass-head.” He is wearing a jean jacket that could have been an iron-on canvas for Guns N’ Roses back patches 20 years ago. He is Charles John “Chuck” Klosterman: pop-culture critic, four-time author, celebrity profiler, Esquire columnist, ESPN Page 2 sportswriter, former Spin senior editor, unrepentant Billy Joel fan. And he makes girls spit.
If you’re familiar with Klosterman’s writing, this shouldn’t be surprising. If you’ve never heard of the guy, it might help to know that Seth Cohen read one of his books on an episode of The O.C. (Culturally speaking, this is the low-rent equivalent of Natalie Portman’s character name-checking the Shins in Garden State.)
Klosterman (pronounced Kloh-ster-man) became a prime-time-TV prop alongside Death Cab for Cutie and the Killers partly by publishing four books in five years that examined American life through the prism of pop culture: 2001’s Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta (a hair-metal-fan memoir); 2003’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low-Culture Manifesto (an essay collection dissecting such phenomena as The Real World, Pamela Anderson, and The Sims); Killing Yourself To Live: 85% of A True Story (a road-narrative meditation on love and death composed while on assignment for Spin, for which Klosterman visited rock-related death sites); and his most recent Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. An anthology of celebrity profiles, columns, and a previously unpublished short story, CK IV is divided into three sections whose headings typify the Klosterman idiom: “Things That are True,” “Things That Might be True,” and “Something That Isn’t True at All.”
It’s also worth noting that people who expend mental energy thinking about Chuck Klosterman do so in three overlapping ways: a) being jealous of him, b) hating him, or c) loving him.
Amanda is a perfect example of the latter: someone who wishes the voice in his books belonged to a friend or her boyfriend. As Klosterman reads an Esquire column about the difference between a nemesis and an archenemy from CKIV, she zealously annotates her paperback copy of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. (One observation: “talks w/ hands.”) When Klosterman mentions that last week he endured a miserable reading at a Tower Records where the Mars Volta had played a few weeks earlier, Amanda actually jumps in her seat, scribbles “like the same stage TMV played” and then beneath scrawls “OMG,” thickly underlined. When someone in the audience expresses surprise that there are so many women here (the crowd’s about 50-50) and then refers to a Klosterman passage comparing his ex-girlfriends to members of KISS, Amanda doodles an arrow-pierced heart. If she knew I was interviewing him later today, I can’t help but wonder if she’d ask me to pass along her bra.
In the past, people like this have been called disciples in the “cult of Klosterman.” Looking around the Boston University Bookstore, where he’s giving the first of two readings today, I can confirm that this is not an opinion or a theory but a statement of fact. At one in the afternoon on a late-September Monday, about 130 college-age kids who should probably be in class are seated with Klosterman’s books laid flat on their laps, like Bibles in church. About 50 more are relegated to the standing-room section of the foyer, where they’ll remain listening for the entire 90 minutes. One of them, PhD candidate Gillian Mason, actually canceled her office hours for this.
During the question-and-answer session, the first inquiry is one he hears all the time: do you feel famous?
“The only time I do is when I get asked that question. In terms of my daily life, no. I mean, walking around downtown Boston today, no one was stopping me. It’s not like I’m super rich. I don’t have celebrity friends. I dress the same,” which must be true considering the jean jacket.
“People here relate to you in a way that’s kind of weird,” someone else later admits. “We’re jealous. If we had your gumption, we’d take over your job.”