Editorials Dan Kozikowski — November 27, 2012 12:16 — 0 Comments
The Monarch Drinks With Chuck Klosterman
“Bigger assholes than writers?” I ask. “No, aspirants,” Chuck replies, taking a sip of his third Sam Adams. And by “Chuck,” I mean “Chuck Klosterman,” and by “aspirants” he means the reporters on the NPR podcast circuit. “They’re all smart people, but they’re also people who view their smartness as a defining part of their character.”
Of course, I am getting way ahead of myself. To set the stage, here are a few facts: at 4:45 PM on November 8th, I boarded the F train in Chelsea. At 5:10 PM, I emerged from the Bergen Street subway station. At 5:15 PM, I realized I was walking in precisely the wrong direction. At 5:25 PM, I bellied up to the bar at the Brooklyn Inn on 148 Hoyt Street. And at about 5:35 PM, Chuck Klosterman and I retreated to a quieter, six-table room toward the back of the bar. (There is no mistaking Chuck when you see him. Take the first result from Google Images and add a year’s worth of untended hair and beard growth, plus the six inches and fifty pounds that made him a high school quarterback.) We spent over three hours discussing—among other things—writing, sports, hurricanes, NPR reporters, and breakfast cereals all while consuming four drinks each. At 8:45 PM, I boarded the F train back to Manhattan. At 9:00 PM, I realized I was taking the train in precisely the wrong direction.
Some other facts that may be of interest: Thursday, November 8th fell squarely in the middle of what was a tumultuous few weeks for New York City and for Chuck. Our original meeting was scheduled for the day after Hurricane Sandy. We rescheduled to the following Thursday, two days after the Presidential election and one day after a freak Nor’easter. The Friday after our meeting, Chuck found himself, briefly, at the center of the General Petraeus scandal (you can read his piece about it on Grantland). On top of that, Chuck was planning to complete his next book by Thanksgiving. In short, we had no scarcity of topics to cover.
Yet, when I listened to my recording of the evening, I realized that we spent an appalling (fine, it was amazing) 50% of the time talking about sports. Because if there’s one thing that’s easy to discuss with Chuck, it is sports. For the uninitiated, there are a lot of great things about talking sports. First, the table stakes are extraordinarily low; it takes shockingly little knowledge to pantomime the same kind of conversations that a knowledgeable fan has. You can, for example, smugly declare that a pretty good player is “overrated,” then cross your arms and let the other participants spin themselves in circles for twenty minutes. Try it; it’s fun. Second, unless you’re dealing with a fanatic, it’s about as safe a topic as the weather. Third—and this is completely compatible with the relative safety of the topic—talking sports engenders as much passion as literature, film, and politics. The added bonus is that you will never (or rarely) be judged for liking the wrong team or player.
Here’s the thing, though: Chuck is the real deal. This is a man who really, truly loves sports. I asked him to rank-order the sports that he enjoys the most. He said college football, pro football, college basketball, pro basketball, track. Number five was track.
“It’s the purest sport. I’m always interested in who’s the heavyweight champion of the world, and who’s the fastest in the 100 meter dash. Fight or flight. Who can beat the dude up if he’s in front of you, and who can run away from the most dudes,” he explains.
When I offer to buy our second round, Chuck offers to pay. I vigorously decline. I suggest a scotch for the next round. Chuck declines. (I offer to buy scotch three times that night, and each time my increasingly-insistent suggestion is turned down. I finally give up when Chuck asks, “Why do you keep trying to get me to drink scotch?!” in a bemused tone.) As I make my way across the hardwood floor and mull over his preference for track, I begin to think this of Chuck: he is an extremely reasonable man.
To be clear, I don’t mean Merriam Webster’s definition 1b, “not extreme or excessive.” Rather, that when Chuck opines, it is as if everything he says is the inescapable conclusion of a carefully-considered syllogism: “I always felt that Snickers was the most popular,” which follows directly from, “it’s the best things of all candy bars.” He is the embodiment of definition 1a, “being in accordance with reason.”
His 1a-ness manifests itself in at least two noteworthy ways. First, when I express a subjective opinion or assert a non-obvious fact, Chuck gently picks at it with the tools of reason—testing the contrapositive, drawing analogies, and so on—until he is satisfied, or until he can identify where my reasoning went off track. But instead of being disarming, this is exactly what makes having several Sam Adams with Chuck Klosterman so damn fun. Any fragment of conversation that is the slightest bit controversial becomes a launching pad for an investigation into human nature and Truth.
The second amusing manifestation of 1a Chuck is the way—when saying something that is definitely not 1b (extreme or excessive, for those who have lost track)—he leans into our worn-down wooden table, cocks his head slightly to the side, and lowers his voice a few decibels. It becomes difficult to hear him over a soundtrack driven by rock standards from the likes of Pink Floyd and The Killers. And suddenly, I’m in on the conspiracy, too. But instead of learning that the government staged 9/11, I am treated to Chuck’s secret breakfast recipe:
“You want to know what the ultimate treat is? Get a glass bowl. Ok. Put it in the freezer. Ok. So it’s really cold. Ok. Fill it with frosted flakes. Fill it 2/3rd with milk so it makes the milk ice cold, then you top it off with half and half.”
Each 1a-but-not-1b opinion is capped with the reveal. He sits straight up in his chair, surges a few decibels above normal volume, and delivers his summary in a full-throated, James Hetfield sort of way:
Chuck seems to have an encyclopedic command of every opinion held or question considered in the past. Throughout our conversation, he answers questions before I even finish asking them. “Is there a running back today that can compare to Barry Sand…” is interrupted with “Adrian Peterson. For pure running, he’s probably the best pure runner since Walter Payton.” On another occasion, I begin to ask, “What are the two or three books that you read growing up that you feel like…”, and Chuck quickly cuts me off to respond, “Animal Farm. Animal Farm and Season on the Brink.”
As the night passes, I realize that one of the highest compliments in Klosterland is “That’s an interesting question.” More specifically, it is the modifier “interesting,” as in “Twitter is an interesting thing. I look at it so much. It annoys me so much,” or “Radiolab is an interesting thing.” When presented with an interesting question, Chuck thinks for a few seconds, shares his initial answer, briefly replays the answer back to himself, takes a position diametrically opposed to his original position, and finally settles on a version of the answer that has been refined to satisfaction.
In fact, this quirk becomes the perfect metaphor for—and explanation of—what has made Chuck so successful. On one hand, interesting competes with “nice” and “good” for the Most-Avoided Word in the English Language for Anyone Who Has Passed Fifth Grade. On the other hand, if you return to the dictionary, you will find the definition “arousing curiosity,” making it a more than able adjective for the topical muses that make creative professionals tick. This is the exact duality that underpins so much of Chuck’s work. He is a man blessed with a talent for using the extraordinarily commonplace and mundane (Saved By the Bell, or Nickelback and Creed) as a springboard to write about something that arouses curiosity on a much deeper level.
The “interesting” standard also explains one of the latest moves in Chuck’s career. I ask him why he decided to take over the New York Times Ethicist column. He answers, “I have a hard time picking what to write about. I never know whether the things that will be interesting to me will be interesting to someone else. Most of the time I will just gamble… with The Ethicist questions, that is removed.”
Which makes the conversation—at least in one respect—the opposite of every other conversation that I’ve had. Sharing something that is “interesting” is not a sign of a checked-out audience, but a small intellectual victory. For example, when I ask about his favorite teams, Chuck replies:
“At this point in my life, I’m self-aware to realize that people’s affinities for a specific team, their hometown team… is the need to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. But once you’re aware of that need, how can it still be there?”
I respond with the analogy of cheap beer: after spending years with what I now believe to be an irrational preference for one cheap beer over others, I have come to hold that Coors Light, Bud Light, and Miller Light taste the same. As soon I finish making this particular pronouncement, Chuck jumps in: ”You really feel they all taste the same?! That’s interesting to me. I think Coors is the best of those.” I insist they taste roughly the same and suggest a blind taste test, to which Chuck responds, “This is a great example of what I’m talking about… when I’m on Fire Island I drink Coors exclusively… that is the beer I drink on the beach. Now, 30 seconds ago, I said that I think Coors tastes the best and now I’m just realizing that I’m not sure it does.” Point for me.
As the night winds on, the drinks go down a little faster, the din in our dimly-lit corner of the bar rises, and our conversation grows increasingly raucous. We trade picks for Best Song of All Time (mine is “Master of Puppets”, his is “The Boys Are Back in Town”). We talk about how podcasting is a superior medium, particularly for exercising, because it is asynchronous and can therefore play perfectly to its committed, captive audience. We turn to Mike Daisey, with whom Chuck had once done a reading (“He blew my doors off.”), which evolves into a conversation about stretching the truth as a writer (“I think that when you’re younger, you do that a little bit more. At this point, honestly, it’s too dangerous. Because of the internet.”), and finally on to writing itself. For Chuck, “Most people get over their past. Writers don’t. That’s the difference. Writers are the most nostalgic, the most self-loathing people because they look back on their life. Maybe if I write about this, I’ll find closure.”
This line of conversation prompts what is the most (ahem) interesting and poignant lesson of the evening. I later have to go back to the recording to be sure that it even happened. When I ask whether he’ll ever feel like he’s “finished” as a writer, Chuck replies:
“I’m never going to feel as excited as the first day that I received my first book in the mail. They send you the early copies of the book. It was like, I could put it on my bookshelf. I didn’t care if anybody else saw it. It was like, I see it.”
Followed shortly by:
“Whenever I talk to people I admire and I express that fear, they’re like ‘that’s how I feel, too…’ The people I want to be like tend to be depressed.”
And I learn again that hackneyed lesson for assholes and aspirants everywhere, echoed by car commercials and the wildly successful alike. “Life is a journey, not a destination,” we are told. But, in this case, the formulation is uniquely Klosterman:
“Nobody appreciates Appetite for Destruction less than Axl Rose.”
The answer isn't poetry, but rather language
- Richard Kenney